AUSTIN (KXAN) — A federal waiver that made school meals free to all students regardless of their family’s income is set to expire June 30, and some say it is coming at the worst time.
The free school meals program began in March 2020 when Congress authorized the U.S. Department of Agriculture to issue dozens of child nutrition waivers.
President Joe Biden signed the Keep Kids Fed Act on June 25, extending some food assistance measures for children through the 2022-23 school year, but it does not continue the universal free school meals for all.
Free and reduced lunches will still be available, but now students will have to qualify through an application process for the program.
“For most families across the country they will have to apply for meal benefits to receive them,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association, a trade organization that represents 50,000 school nutrition professionals. “Any family that does not qualify for a reduced price meal will have to pay full price.”
Pratt-Heavner said with rising gas prices and other inflation-related issues, ending the free lunch for all now will make it hard for struggling families.
“Too many families live at the margins,” Pratt-Heavner said. “They just don’t qualify for assistance, but they are really struggling to cover all their costs and make sure their kids are getting healthy meals each day. So, this is a real loss, and for those families that are eligible for reduced price meals, that 40 cents for lunch and 30 cents for breakfast can really add up, especially when you have three or four kids in school.”
In Austin ISD, students automatically receive free meals if they are at one of the 77 schools participating in the Community Eligibility Provision program.
AISD students can also qualify if they are directly certified through state-funded benefits such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
Students can also qualify if they are directly certified through migrant, homeless, or runaway programs, or in foster care.
Free and reduced meals are based on family income.
Hays CISD said it has five schools that qualify for the CEP program. Those campuses are Uhland, Science Hall, Hemphill, and Camino Real Elementary Schools, and Simon Middle School. All students there will continue to receive free breakfast, lunch and snacks.