Federal waivers allowing school districts to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students across the nation will expire June 30.

Food and nutrition services at Guilford County Schools, Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools and every other public school district in the country will return to pre-pandemic food services, including a price tag for lunch meals.

Pamela Yoon, a High Point mother with two students in Guilford County Schools, said the problem with returning to pre-pandemic standards is that “post-pandemic” life hasn’t happened yet.

“We’re still in the pandemic,” she said. “It is worse in some ways because gas is expensive, groceries are expensive and they are ending a program that helped parents whether they qualify or not.”

Prior to the pandemic, eligibility for free or reduced lunch was determined by income and household size. When in-person schooling shut down in March 2020, federal waivers allowed school districts to provide free breakfast and school lunch to all children ages 0-18, regardless of whether they were public-school students. 

In addition to providing free meals to all, waivers allowed school districts to provide more meals during the summer and waived restrictions to how and where meals could be served. These waivers allowed parents to pick up meals at schools while their kids continued remote learning. 

Andrew Harrell, program manager at No Kid Hungry NC, estimated that more than 200 million children were served by school districts and their community partners. 

“With these waivers during the pandemic, we were able to see a second public health crisis averted,” Harrell said. “On day one of the shutdown, staff members were out there making sure kids had meals. These waivers were a huge deal and they did a lot to defeat the stigma associated with free and reduced lunch.”

crop black schoolchild with biscuit near lunch box
Photo by Katerina Holmes on Pexels.com

Yoon, who does not qualify for free or reduced lunch, said that her kids greatly benefited from the free meals during lockdown as well as during the school year.

“Sometimes my kids took their lunch, but during the pandemic, I’ve let them get lunch at school,” she said. “It was sort of a relief to not have to budget those groceries or that lunch cost anymore. We’ll adjust, but I think it’d be very helpful for families to not have that cost.”

Morgan Wilson, a single mother of three Guilford County Schools’ students, said it will be difficult for her to go back. Wilson worked two jobs pre-pandemic, one as a server. When restaurants were shut down, she lost a good portion of her income.

“Free meals were such a blessing,” she said. “Being able to pick up a bunch of meals at the same time helped me feed my family when I didn’t really know how I was going to.” 

Angie Henry, chief financial officer for Guilford County Schools, said that although there are many eligible families, not all take advantage of the Free School Lunch program, sometimes because of stigma.

The forms that must be completed to receive free or reduced lunch ask for personal information including housing, income and household size. Free meals for all helped those families who may have felt ashamed of that information still get meals for their children.

“When the pandemic started in 2020 we realized very quickly the need for our students,” Henry said. “We’ve had an idea but to see the cars lined up to receive meals illustrated to us how great the need is for our community.”

Alicia Crews, district manager with Chartwells K-12 Food Services and liaison with Winston Salem/Forsyth County Schools, said family financial situations have not improved since the start of the pandemic, only exacerbated by supply chain issues and inflation.

“The need isn’t going to change,” she said. “The price of everything is soaring, some people are just getting back to work so there may be some challenge for families who may now have to pay for these meals.”

Both school districts advised eligible families to fill out the form for free or reduced lunches for the 2021-22 school year; filing ended June 9. Free and reduced meal applications will be available Aug. 1 for families to complete to become eligible for free/reduced meals in the 2022-2023 school year.

Both Guilford County and Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools have begun hosting summer meal program sites for families to eat breakfast and lunch, although all meals must be eaten on site this year. No Kid Hungry NC also has a list of summer meal locations at summer4NCkids.org.

Pre-pandemic, about 62 percent of students in Guilford County Schools and about 59 percent in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools qualified for free or reduced lunch. Nationally, nearly 30 million students received free or reduced-price school meals. Data also shows that  90 percent of school districts participated in the free school lunch and summer programs during the pandemic.

According to Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization, about 13 percent of people in Guilford and Forsyth counties are food insecure. The organization’s research shows that kids who do not get enough to eat are at an increased risk of health conditions such as anemia and asthma. Children who miss meals also may experience difficulties in school and other social situations like arts or athletics. 

National data also shows disparities in food insecurity for children based on race and disability. According to a national survey conducted in 2019-20 by the National Center for Health Statistics, the percentage of children who lived in food-insecure households was higher for non-Hispanic Black (18.8 percent) than Hispanic (15.7 percent) children, and higher for both non-Hispanic Black and Hispanic children than for non-Hispanic White children (6.5 percent). A greater percentage of children with disability — 19.3 percent — also lived in food-insecure households compared with children without disability (9.8 percent).

lunch boxes near notebooks on table
Photo by Katerina Holmes on Pexels.com

Despite these glaring statistics, Congress opted not to extend the waivers in its $1.5 trillion spending bill.

“I’m hoping that if the federal government can’t do anything, that the state can find a way to provide universally free school meals at no cost to families,” Henry said.

In recent months, the North Carolina legislature has introduced bills in the state House and state Senate that would make lunch and breakfast free for all students. All of the bills, which currently have stalled in committees, would be effective July 1 if passed. 

Harrell said that the end of the waivers is going to be challenging and staff are going to have to continue being creative to help families.

“We’ve always been of the mindset that these means should be free for all students,” he said. “We provide them with desks, chairs and other things they need to learn. Food is a part of that. A hungry kid can’t learn.”

CLARIFICATION: An edit of this story clarified parameters for the 2022-23 school year from the earlier version.

Join the First Amendment Society, a membership that goes directly to funding TCB‘s newsroom.

We believe that reporting can save the world.

The TCB First Amendment Society recognizes the vital role of a free, unfettered press with a bundling of local experiences designed to build community, and unique engagements with our newsroom that will help you understand, and shape, local journalism’s critical role in uplifting the people in our cities.

All revenue goes directly into the newsroom as reporters’ salaries and freelance commissions.

⚡ Join The Society ⚡