For the past two years, every student in participating schools had free meals, equalizing the lunchroom experience.
The end of the pandemic-related measure means families once again have to rely on the federal free and reduced lunch program.
Established under the National School Lunch Act in 1946, the program provides low-cost or free meals to low-income students. But strict income requirements and stigmas associated with social welfare programs often keep families from participating.
Students from families that qualify for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families automatically qualify for the program, but the program has specific and complicated income requirements for families applying for the program independently.
This, said Deerfield Community School District business manager Doreen Treuden, can lead to confusion for potential participating families. Should families fill out their application incorrectly and be randomly selected for verification, Treuden added, they lose their eligibility.
“You have to qualify to the dollar,” Treuden said of the income brackets for the program.
For the 2022-23 school year, a household of four has to make $51, 338 or less a year to qualify for reduced meal prices. The same family has to make less than $36,075 a year to qualify for their student to receive free meals. For a family household of three, the annual income has to be $33,874 or less for reduced school meals and $29,939 or less to qualify for free meals.
This number is further broken down for each income bracket by the frequency of pay. So eligibility can change for the same family depending on whether income is salaried and whether paychecks come monthly, twice per month, every two weeks or weekly.
Beyond the specificity of the income eligibility, many area school officials described the thresholds for qualifying for the Free and Reduced lunch program low, including Monona Grove School District business manager Jerrud Rossing.
“The free and reduced application, which is set forth by the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), they have that family income level, which to be honest, is very low,” Rossing said. “Even families that probably should qualify are not qualifying because of that level of being so low.”
With inflation at a record high, district and family budgets are not going as far as usual. The Consumer Price Index, which measures the average change in prices paid by consumers over time, recorded an 8.6% rise in prices between May 2021 and May 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Energy and food costs rose the most, at 34.6% and 10.1% respectively.
The food index, the BLS reported, is the seeing first increase of 10% or more since March 1981, leaving more families struggling to grocery shop amid continued supply-chain issues resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine.
With an estimated one in seven children facing chronic hunger in Wisconsin, the gaps in the free and reduced program are left to be filled by school districts and the communities. In the past, districts would use funds from the nutrition fund to fill in the gaps for students who had negative lunch balances, but that is no longer allowed, according to Rossing, after a policy change by the USDA.
There are efforts to make all school lunches free, regardless of family income, such as in the Universal School Meals Program Act.
Rep. Gwen Moore (D- Milwaukee), one of the bill’s sponsors, said the measure would provide every child with three meals a day throughout the school year, “which would be a great equalizer for children and all families.
“No child should go hungry in America,” Moore wrote in an email. “There are too many kids in Milwaukee and across the country who don’t know when they will receive their next meal and that worries me day and night.”
Opponents of the bill have expressed concern over its price tag, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The USDA reported the current lunch program costs $14 billion a year to serve 29 million children.
In the meantime, districts and families are left to worry about their students being fed.
Families that fall in the “gray” area, or the ones that don’t qualify for federal assistance but struggle to make ends meet, as Deerfield Community School District superintendent Michelle Jensen described, were reported as a concern for several local districts.
Negative lunch account balances have caught national attention in the past, with reports of students’ lunches being taken or thrown away. Some districts have even reportedly used “I need lunch money” stamps on children’s arms.
Most area districts, however, have emphasized not penalizing students for insufficient funds in their lunch account, but instead working directly with families to offer support.
Some districts have their own programs in place, in collaboration with the community, to help those families. For Deerfield, it's the DEAR Fund and the DCC food pantry. In Lake Mills, there’s the Family Connections Fund. For Cambridge students, the Everybody Eats program funds lunches for students who fall through the cracks of the free and reduced lunch program.
“We are fortunate enough in this community that our students will not have to worry about it, because no child goes unfed,” Cambridge nutrition director Janice Murray said. “It doesn't matter what their income level is, or if they have money in their account, whatever the circumstances are, every child gets fed in our school district.”
In Monona and Cottage Grove, there are snack pack programs that send food home over weekends and Monona Munchies, which offers brown paper bag lunches to families, no questions asked during the summer months. Several of the districts also reported community donations earmarked specifically for clearing students’ negative lunch account balances.
“If someone doesn’t qualify, and there’s a need, we do receive anonymous donations,” McFarland business manager Jeff Mahoney said. “Funding, a lot of times, comes from donors that want us to use money to help take care of negative balance families.”
But while SSO was in place as a pandemic measure, district officials said, every student had the same experience. Students seen in the hot lunch line, said MGSD nutrition director Maggie Sanna and Murray, had previously been seen as the students who “needed to be there.”
“When we went to universal free meals, it took that stigma away, everybody got fed,” Murray said. “That's the way it should be, in my opinion.”