Local school officials look for fix as free lunches end along with federal health emergency status

·2 min read

Lunch is typically one of the best times of the day for kids in school. It’s a mental break and a chance to refuel, especially when it’s free.

“It doesn’t matter what your income level is or your particular situation, to pack lunches and prepare them with the amount of money things cost right now — it’s stressful and challenging,” said Dr. Mark Holtzman, superintendent at Beaver Area School District.

School lunches were free for two years under pandemic waivers. Now, students have to pay, and the change is palpable.

“That whole ugly stigma rolled around again. ‘Who is free? Who’s in line? Who’s not in line? Why aren’t you eating today? Whoever has an IOU?’ Parents hate getting those calls from us, saying ‘Look, you owe us money.’ If we ever needed universal free meals, we do now,” said Nicolle Pleil, Trinity Area School District food director.

That’s exactly what a local state representative is trying to do. While the governor’s budget allows for universal free breakfast, Rep. Emily Kinkead is requesting an additional $275 million for lunches, too. Plus, an additional $30 million increase to the state’s supplement for the community eligibility programs and another $25 million to be used to get rid of student lunch debt.

“Many people want to say ‘Who’s going to pay for this?’ I understand that. But from my perspective, it’s about children and I don’t want to see funding taken away from anyone or anything to fund school lunches. But if it can be done in a way that’s efficient and effective, I think it should be considered,” Holtzman said.

This comes at a time when student debt is at an all-time high, with inflation and the districts also dealing with rising food and gas prices and labor costs.

At Trinity Area School District, if changes aren’t made, they may have to raise each lunch a dollar for students whose families are able to pay, according to Pleil.

“We’ve given more money to stamps, but these same nutrition programs we run in the schools haven’t seen any increase. School districts just aren’t poised to be able to handle this increase in debt,” Pleil said.

It’s not clear if the governor will consider universal free lunches in the budget, but in both the state House and Senate, there are separate bills also proposing universal free meals.

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