(Bloomberg) -- Families across the US are suddenly finding themselves stuck with a new expense — school lunch for their kids — just as prices everywhere are rising.
A federal pandemic-era program giving free meals to all public-school students, regardless of their family’s income, expired as this fall’s school year kicked off. And while the White House just this week said it wants to expand a national free school-meal program, for now many families are still saddled with extra costs.
For Sully Montero, a 38-year-old mom of three and high school teacher in New Jersey, the expiration of the pandemic benefits means that she’s now adding as much as $200 to her already tight monthly budget to pay for breakfast and lunch for her son, who is in first grade.
“Those meals saved us money, it saved us time, and it was so incredible,” Montero said. “And now, it's taken away from us.”
At the onset of the pandemic, the government started the school-meal initiative to help combat the economic blow of Covid lockdowns and rising unemployment. It was an expansion of a program that already provided the aid to low-income families — the assistance was extended to all Americans with kids in public schools as part of broader stimulus packages that helped to temper the child poverty rate. But now many of those benefits have been withdrawn, and family expenses are piling up at a time when inflation is making the squeeze all the worse.
US food costs are rising at the fastest rate since 1979, government data show. And that’s on top of higher clothing costs and energy bills along with gasoline prices that, despite a recent drop, are still up more than 15% from this time last year. In the latest US Census Bureau pulse survey conducted in late July and early August, 36% of respondents said it had been somewhat or very difficult to pay for household expenses, reaching levels near the 2020 peak.
Read More: Inflation and Expiring Benefits Have More Americans Going Hungry
Montero is among those feeling the squeeze. “I'm starting to panic because the expenses keep piling up and my salary doesn't go anywhere,” she said.
It’s been established for years that having the assurance of school meals improves children's health and well-being. The programs reduce food insecurity for kids, provide nutrition they may not otherwise get and boost academic performance, according to a 2017 US Department of Agriculture report.
What’s more: The national price tag is relatively low.
Expanding the school meals to all children, regardless of family income status, would cost about $10 billion, or roughly 3.4% of the agency's total obligations in 2022, a USDA spokesperson told Bloomberg.
“I didn't want to be stigmatized for being poor”
The current system that requires parents to apply for free or reduced price meals, meanwhile, translates into an average of $100,000 a year in administrative costs for individual school districts: Forms have to be mailed, reminders sent, assistance provided to fill them out, and then school staff must process them. Often, kids don’t get the free or reduced-price meals they are eligible for simply because families don't know, or are ashamed, to apply.
While Congress didn’t extend the USDA’s authority to allow all students to eat school meals free of charge, the agency will be extending deadlines for districts to participate in the Community Eligibility Provision, which allows schools serving many high-need students to provide all meals for free without collecting applications from families, a spokesperson said.
“It is important to note that schools across the country will still face ongoing challenges, and at USDA we will continue to use every tool at our disposal to ensure kids get the nutritious meals they need and deserve,” the agency said in an emailed statement.
There’s also the matter of a social stigma for kids who get free or reduced lunch — that was less likely to happen when everyone was getting comped meals.
Michigan resident Cassie Williams, 38, still remembers qualifying for getting free meals in school, but never taking them for that reason.
“I didn't want to be stigmatized for being poor,” Williams said.
Now, she says she’s fortunate enough to be able to afford the extra $80 a month it will cost to buy lunch supplies or pay for school meals for her six-year-old. Her child, who is just starting first grade, has only had one full school year prior, which was under the free-meal program. Williams, who works in advertising, said now it will add one more thing to her already overwhelming to-do list as a busy mom.
"It's remembering to buy food that doesn't have allergens, the time to pack it, remembering to put an ice pack in the freezer,” she said. “Being a parent is a never-ending exercise in decision fatigue.”
The pandemic program has changed expectations around the concept of universal school meals, considered a “pie-in-the-sky notion” as recently as when experts discussed the issue in a 2019 conversation hosted by the food-focused publication Civil Eats.
While the White House this week said it will work to advance a program that brings free meals to 9 million more children, the timeline is to complete that work by 2032. Further, that goal still won’t cover all the nation’s kids — there are roughly 50 million students in US public schools.
The proposal "would be a huge boost," but still "leaves millions more families who would still need to apply for meal benefits or pay for meals," according to Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association.
For now only six states — California, Nevada, Maine, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Vermont — have extended the universal school meals after the federal government failed to include them in the most recent budget. The states are funding their programs through a hodgepodge of maximized federal contributions and state money. California and Maine have made the program permanent.
The issue can sometimes find surprisingly bipartisan support at the state level.
“Part of the argument was, if you’re going to invest in public education, but not this basic need, you’re basically wasting this money,” said Anna Korsen, advocacy and implementation director at Full Plates Full Potential in Maine. “That resonated with fiscally conservative Republicans.”
Vermont saw “tri-partisan” support for the initiative, from Democrats, Republicans and the Progressive party, said Faye Mack, advocacy and education director at Hunger Free Vermont. “There are some Republicans from more conservative parts of the state, who are parents themselves and have recent school experiences and see how it important it is to have school meals, who really championed the bill,” she said.
Possible State Expansion
In other states, advocates and lawmakers are still pushing for expansion, with mixed results. Coloradans will vote on a ballot initiative in November; it’s got 60% support from likely voters, according to a poll conducted in April by Keating Research and Hunger Free Colorado. In New York, universal school meals weren’t in the most recent state budget; groups plan to campaign for inclusion in the next one. In Wisconsin, the Republican-led legislature didn't even bring a proposal to a vote.
Ultimately, action needs to come from the federal level, experts say, but that can feel out of reach in Washington. A Sept. 15 letter calling for the nationwide program to be extended for this school year — dubbed a bipartisan effort — included only a single Republican along with 47 Democrats.
Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, argues that a universal school-meal program “ought to be a no brainer.”
“Anything about school meals is in the context of a society that does not value children as a public good, and leaves it up to individual parents to raise them as they can,” she said.
Representative Josh Gottheimer, one of the politicians that led the letter to Congressional leadership of both parties, said that he expects support around this issue to build. “There’s nothing partisan about this — it’s feeding our kids,” the Democrat from New Jersey said.
In the meantime, parents like Montero, the mom from New Jersey, are finding ways to stretch their budgets as inflation hits. She’s trying to start a side business from home as a travel agent, and she’s asking family to pitch in on child care so she can cut down on day care costs.
“I feel like constantly I just am going ‘pay this, pay that,’ and Covid shielded us from a lot of that,” she said. “Now, facing all these different charges is kind of an eye-opening financial situation.”
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