Universal free lunch program comes to an end for Brevard Public School students

·7 min read

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On August 10, when students go back to school, the free lunch program that fed everyone — regardless of parental income — for the last two years will be no more.

The universal free school lunch program that students benefited from during the COVID-19 pandemic — providing a major boost to struggling families — came to an end on June 30.

Now school food support will revert to the way it was pre-pandemic, when the poorest students, about 56% of Brevard's student population, will have access to free or reduced price lunches. The concern, though, is that while the remaining 44 percent may not qualify for discounted or free lunch, that doesn't necessarily mean their parents can afford to pay.

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Child welfare advocates fear that many households in Brevard will be unable to afford school lunches for their children when they are already struggling with inflation, soaring rents and rising gas prices. Advocates fear the additional costs of up to $50 a month could be devastating to some families in these tough economic times.

Can Brevard schools create a new lunch fund?

For these families, the only hope will be a donation fund, but in the past these funds ran short, leaving Brevard County Public Schools to carry the loses, a reality many experts say might only be worse this coming school year.

According to School Board member Kayte Campbell, even though the universal free lunch program was extremely successful, there is simply no money in BPS' current budget to create a similar program on its own.

“For a district like ours to just say, 'You know what? We're just going to make lunch free for every student who wants it, and we'll fund that, then we have to also know, OK, if we're going to use those dollars for that and what are we not going to do for students?" Campbell said.

"Funding," for the school district, she pointed out, "is not unlimited.”

Local and national education policy leaders say the only solution will have to come from the federal government.

When the pandemic hit, Congress funded school lunches for all students nationwide — no matter their family's income levels.

“Hungry kids just had an opportunity to get a meal," said Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations at the School Nutrition Association, an organization that advocates for access to low-cost school meal programs. "And it's been so beneficial in terms of making sure that every child is nourished and ready to learn. Previously, students had to meet federal income requirements to qualify for free and reduced school lunches."

Susan Biggs, cafeteria manager, shows the mobile breakfast cart.
Susan Biggs, cafeteria manager, shows the mobile breakfast cart.

According to Pratt-Heavner, these free meal programs were never meant to be locally funded programs.

“There is no funding in school districts to support that,” Pratt-Heavner said.

But the end of the program comes at a particularly challenging time when food, rent, gas and utility costs are at decade highs.

“It’s very hard to make ends meet,” said Cheryl Cominsky, executive director at The Childrens Hunger Project, a not-for-profit organization that gives children food to sustain them over the weekend. “If she’s (a mom) having to pay her rent or get evicted, she’d have to pay her rent before she has to pay for food. She has to pay her electricity if the electricity is going to get cut off. That’s what she’s going to do.”

Campbell said, starting Aug. 10, schools will have to put in an extra effort to get families who qualify to apply for free and reduced-price lunches, and to make sure school food pantries and access to social workers are available for hungry students who need them.

Although the free and reduced school lunch program — established in 1946 — has been a boon to many families, some families don’t meet eligibility requirement yet are still struggling, Pratt-Heavner said.

Inflation in rent and food prices mean more families are struggling

The U.S. Department of Agriculture eligibility guidelines say that a three-person family had to make less than $42,606 a year to qualify for reduced-price lunch, and $29,939 for free lunch.

Half of workers in Brevard County make less than $46,000 a year, and with rising rent prices, many are already having to pay half their entire income on rent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Although financial experts recommend that households spend no more than 30% of income on rent, that is not possible for many in today's rental market.

Food prices also have jumped. The USDA predicts food costs to rise by up to 9.5% this year. In Brevard County — where about 29% of people live in an area where fresh, affordable food is hard to find and about 32% of people experience food insecurity, according to a study done by the Space Coast Health Foundation, access to consistent nutritious meals can be especially crucial for growing kids.

And Brevard County children want these meals.

When the universal lunch program was in place, Brevard Public Schools distributed 5,675,704 lunches, the most they’ve ever distributed, according to Kellyn Manders, senior coordinator at BPS.

Before universal free lunches, some students went into debt to be fed.

Prior to the pandemic, unpaid school lunch debt reached about $8,000, even after community donations were used to pay off lunch debts. By the end of the pandemic, because of the universal free lunch program, lunch debt almost reached $0.

School nutrition advocates are concerned that, without universal free lunches, the increased school lunch debt will force school districts to choose between feeding students and educating them.

To help out in cases where students run out of cash in their lunch account, there also is a pot of money called the house account that BPS keeps to pay for meals for student who owe moneyMoney in this account comes from community donations.

Donations are one of the ways that many schools across the nation compensate for lunches that are not reimbursed by the federal government through the free and reduced-price meal program or that students don’t pay for, according to the Student Nutrition Association. Other schools nationwide have had to take money from educational programs to compensate for the losses.

But Pratt-Heavner said it wasn't supposed to be left to local schools to deal with this issue.

Pratt-Heavner said the federal government designed the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Program to operate on student lunch sales and reimbursements for students who are on the free and reduced lunch program.

Congress passed bipartisan legislation in June that raised federal reimbursements for school lunch and breakfast to account for inflation. But it doesn't compare to the level of funding schools needed to implement universal free lunches.

George Cecala, the deputy chief of staff and communications director to U.S. Rep. Bill Posey of Rockledge, who voted for the Keep Kids Fed Act, said that Posey "is open to considering proposals to make improvements, as we hear from local and state school officials."

Pratt-Heavner said the School Nutrition Association remains hopeful that the current administration and Congress will pass further legislation to expand access to free meals.

"You know, school meals are just as important to learning as textbooks and transportation," Pratt-Heavner said. "You know, we provide students a free trip to school and the resources that they need to learn, but they certainly can't take advantage of that if they're hungry,"

Resources and donations:

To apply to the free and reduced-price lunch program, families can go to https://www.brevardschools.org/Page/3473 to fill out the application which goes live next week. 

For support filling out the application, contact the Office of Food and Nutrition Services  at 321-633-1000, ext. 11642, or email ServingHappiness@brevardschools.org.

To donate to the house account, community members can donate directly to their local school, or they can contact Food & Nutrition Services at 321) 633-1000, ext. 11690.

To donate to The Children Hunger Project, community members can call 321-610-1900 or go to https://thechildrenshungerproject.org/donate/.

Amira Sweilem is the data reporter at FLORIDA TODAY. Contact Sweilem at 386-406-5648 or asweilem@floridatoday.com

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This article originally appeared on Florida Today: Brevard schools end free lunch program for all students