Local school districts prepare for end of universal free lunch program

COLORADO SPRINGS — A federal program that has helped expand access to school lunches will expire this summer.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, districts were able to provide free breakfast and lunch to all children in kindergarten through 12, but the universal federal free lunch program is scheduled to end on June 30. The federal program was left out of the bipartisan omnibus package approved by Congress.

“School districts will have to revert to not receiving nutritional waivers and extra help to feed students,” said Shelley Becker, assistant superintendent and chief financial officer for Harrison School District 2.

Becker says ending the program means the district will no longer receive federal rebates of up to 20, 30, or 40 percent.

“It has an impact, especially on outcomes and on receiving federal assistance,” Becker said. “What we are already seeing are gas prices and the fuel surcharge. For Harrison, we get milk shipments twice a week, but the only authorized milk supplier for school nutrition services is based in Englewood, Colorado, which is
Denver. Just as fuel prices rise, we begin to see a surcharge for diesel or fuel added just to get milk delivered to our district. We’re starting to see an 11% or 20% increase on packaging items like cardboard and plastic. If your burgers are wrapped and sealed, there are additional fees and charges.”

She says the free lunch program has helped the district feed children during the pandemic.

“It allowed us if we needed to make one-time expenses, buy staples or extra items, we were able to do that,” Becker said.

Now that the program is ending, Becker says there may be lunchtime changes.

“That could mean that if prices go so high and there’s no federal reimbursement revenue, there could be expensive menu items that we may not be able to serve. Could that mean that we need to take some of those items off the menu, maybe not as many choices for students,” Becker said.

The Harrison School District won’t be the only district making changes to the menu.

“Without the funding, we have to look for food alternatives. The quality of the food could go down, the number of employees could go down. We don’t want to get to the point where we serve boxed meals every day, but that’s a real possibility if we have to close the kitchens because we can’t afford to have staff in the buildings,” said Kent Wehri, food and nutrition director for School District 11 in Colorado Springs.

Wehri says those federal funds have been vital to the nutrition program. The district received an additional $1.36 per meal (federal reimbursement), which helped reduce inflated food costs.

“When we have to buy food at a 40-50% markup, this funding has helped us survive over the past two years. We have been able to work with our vendors and supplies to get food from different vendors and use these funds to help offset these costs,” Wehri said. “This funding has given us the flexibility to purchase food when we don’t have access to the food supply system and allowed us to keep our staff employed .”

The end of the federal program will mean big changes for the next school year and for the summer lunch program.

“We won’t be able to allow people to drive and take their meals. They will have to stay and eat where we are, and that’s going to be a big change for the community,” Wehri said.

Meanwhile, districts say families didn’t have to fill out free and reduced meal forms. When the free meal program ends, those who qualify will have to do it again. District 11 has seen a sharp drop in applications and is encouraging families to file immediately. Here are the links to District 2 and District 11.

State lawmakers are working to continue providing free meals to all students. SB22-087 would reimburse schools for meals for children who do not meet the income criteria for a free or reduced lunch.

State Senator Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, who co-sponsored the bill, said the sticking point for lawmakers is the cost of up to $118 million a year. She and other sponsors plan to introduce modifications to reduce costs.

“There’s a whole gap of kids losing the opportunity to get free and reduced meals because they don’t meet those income criteria, but their families are still struggling,” Fields said.

If the bill passes, it will go into effect beginning in the 2023-2024 school year, assuming the state is selected for a pilot federal program to use Medicaid eligibility to identify students eligible for free school meals.

Ryan H. Bowman