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Will Changes in the School Lunch Program Leave Kids Hungry?

Unfortunately, hunger in America is always a relevant issue. But because September is Hunger Action Month, this is a particularly appropriate time to take a closer look at hunger topics and trends. As the COVID-19 pandemic that began in 2020 enters a new phase, many pandemic-related government assistance programs are ending. Many such programs were crucial to fighting food insecurity during a particularly difficult time for families near or below the poverty line. Does the end of these programs put families, and particularly children, at risk?

The answer is complicated, but in the case of the National School Lunch Program, there are reasons to be optimistic. Started in 1946, this program was in existence well before the pandemic; according to USDA data, 4.9 billion lunches were provided to children in pre-Kindergarten through 12th grade at a total cost of $14.2 billion in fiscal year 2019. The program continues to operate in nearly 100,000 public and nonprofit private schools, as well as residential child care institutions. The pandemic-era changes involved program scope: while in FY2019, 74.1 percent of meals provided through the program were served free or at a reduced price, that number skyrocketed in FY2021 to 98.9 percent.

With the expiration of the USDA waivers that expanded its scope and coverage, the school lunch program now largely returns to its pre-pandemic guidelines. These offer free lunches to children from households with incomes at or below 130 percent of the Federal poverty line and reduced-price lunches to children whose households report income between 130 and 185 percent of the Federal poverty line. In some areas, lunches are still available to all students regardless of household income. These include:

  • Free lunches funded at the state level. Following the success of last year’s expanded program, some states have chosen to continue offering free lunch to students regardless of household income by using other funding. States where this is the case include California, Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont. Because some states are using COVID relief funding to extend this offer, it’s unclear how long this program extension will continue, but it’s good news for the 2022-2023 school year.
  • Free lunches provided school-wide through the community eligibility provision. Schools with a high proportion of eligible students, usually those located in economically disadvantaged areas, have another option. They can apply on a school-wide basis to have free lunches extended to all students if 40 percent or more of the student body has been identified as eligible for food assistance based on participation in other means-tested programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). In this case, the schools are reimbursed through the federal program.

In schools that don’t fall into one of these two categories, eligible students can still access free or reduced-price lunches, but a brief application is required to establish eligibility. Especially for parents who may not be aware of the program change—no paperwork was required last year, but it is this year—awareness efforts are essential. Schools in this situation are working hard to notify parents and students with posters, email notifications, notes in backpacks, and other means of spreading the word.

Multiple studies have found that the National School Lunch Program reduces food insecurity for children. In conjunction with household-based programs like SNAP and TANF, nearly half of which is disbursed securely and conveniently by Conduent on behalf of states, kids can get the support they need in the school and at home. So while not every child still has access to free lunch at school regardless of household income, those most in need should still be able to participate in one of the nation’s most successful programs fighting childhood hunger. And that’s good news, not just during Hunger Action Month, but throughout the school year and beyond.