Here in the United States, we have a truly unwieldy number of issues to tackle at any given time, especially if you’re not a white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied person. Those people face real issues and barriers, too, of course, but marginalized folks face all of those and then some. Extra sadly but not surprisingly, low-income youth in the nation also face barriers, including access to school lunch.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Daily Kos covered stories of anti-free-lunch movements, including students who were threatened with not being able to attend field trips or prom because of school lunch “debt,” as well as parents who were told their kids could be sent to foster care. Make no mistake: This is violence. And that was before the global pandemic hit. While students of all backgrounds have faced a dizzying number of changes during the ongoing public health crisis, another one is due at the end of June 2022.
As reported by The Guardian, because Congress has not moved to extend child nutrition waivers nationwide, loads of low-income children may lose access to reliable and free breakfast and lunch. As tends to be the case with any kind of public benefit, exactly what this covered is a little confusing, so let’s break it down below.
First, some background on how free lunch programs typically work: In order to qualify for a free or reduced-price meal, families must apply and must meet certain income thresholds per the number of folks in their family. Some people don’t apply to these programs even though they qualify because of, among other reasons, literacy barriers, English barriers, and shame or guilt. Some folks might also want to try and protect their adolescents from potentially experiencing bullying at school.
Since March 2020, however, Congress permitted the USDA to use the aforementioned child nutrition waivers, which essentially let the schools serve free lunch to all students, without an application, and simply be reimbursed for the cost later. This means that students got to eat no matter what their family’s income was and no one had to apply, saving everyone stress and time.
Importantly, this program also allowed folks to get free meals even when school wasn’t in session; this included, for example, picking up meals during lockdowns or remote learning. Over school breaks (including the long stretch of summer), kids and teenagers could get these free meals delivered in bulk to community spaces or even to their front door, making them more accessible to families who don’t have access to a car or whose adults can’t miss work or other obligations in order to pick up meals at select times.
In short: More hungry people got food with less shame.
Now, some states have already implemented or proposed free lunch for all public school students, but in the big picture, the end of the current program means families will again have to apply in order to receive free or reduced lunch, and meals will go back to either being full price, reduced, or free, depending on your family’s financial situation. Some schools will continue to provide free lunch for all this summer, but will no longer offer curbside pick-up or to-go bags.
Either way, this means that not only will parents and guardians face additional paperwork and stress, but schools will also have to deal with said paperwork amid supply chain and staffing issues. It means lot of headaches when we could just … offer free breakfast and lunch to all students, period.
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