116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Free breakfasts and lunches at area schools for the last two years during the pandemic are set to end this summer. But Eastern Iowa school nutrition professionals are advocating for free meals to be made permanent in K-12 schools.
Districts have provided free meals to students since the start of the pandemic in March 2020 when the U.S. Department of Agriculture began reimbursing schools and child care centers. Free meals — breakfast and lunch — were then extended for the 2021-22 school year.
But the federal waivers are set to expire June 30.
Universal free meals have given all children access to a healthy breakfast and lunch while removing the stigma of free and reduced price meals, said Ginny Scott, nutritional services director for the College Community School District.
“Research shows students eat their healthiest meals at school,” Scott said. “School meal programs need Congress’ full support to overcome pandemic-related challenges and ensure students continue to receive nutritious school meals to support learning and combat child hunger.”
Scott attended the School Nutrition Association’s 50th annual Legislative Action Conference in Washington, D.C., this month, joining around 700 school nutrition professionals from across the U.S. in advocating for the extension of pandemic child nutrition waivers.
The School Nutrition Association is a national, nonprofit professional organization representing 50,000 school nutrition professionals dedicated to making healthy school meals and nutrition education available to all students.
Breakfast participation in Iowa pre-pandemic was ranked as one of the lowest in the country. With universal meals, district participation increased by approximately 50 percent, Scott said.
Typically, districts are reimbursed for meals only when students qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch through the National School Lunch Program. Many families' income levels are just above the allowable amounts to qualify for free or reduced price meals, Scott said.
“One family in our district did not qualify because their household income was over the income limits by $12 for the year,” Scott said. “The application process also does not factor in the financial impact of households experiencing outside factors such as medical conditions and the bills associated.”
Since meals have been made free, schools have seen an increase in the number of students taking school meals, which includes fruits and vegetables, milk and whole grains.
The program has also provided schools higher-than-normal meal reimbursements for every meal they serve, helping them manage increased costs associated with pandemic-related operational and supply chain challenges.
Since 2018, Iowa requires school nutrition programs to feed all students who want a school meal breakfast and lunch. However, if a household does not pay for the meals, the school nutrition program carries the debt, Scott said. Donations from outside sources may be accepted to counteract the debt, but it’s difficult to disperse the funds equitably and the donations are not a constant source of relief.
Universal meals has decreased the need for food service staff to fill the role of debt collector, Scott said, eliminating hours of administrative paperwork and red tape to allow for more time to prepare quality, healthy, scratch-made foods.
In October 2020, 15,000 students in the College Community School District took school breakfast and 49,000 took school lunch. By May 2021, almost 25,000 students took school breakfast and 69,000 took school lunch.
The number of students taking school meals in Iowa City schools is “higher than ever,” said Alison Demory, nutrition services director for the Iowa City Community School District.
Since March 2020, the Iowa City Community School District has served more than 1.6 million meals to 14,000 students and families — an average of 9,000 lunch meals and nearly 3,400 breakfast meals a day.
“Students and families want and need these meals,” she said. “If the federal guidance requires us to return to our previous model of charging students, we will encourage any families who may be eligible to apply for free or reduced meal benefits. For those who qualify, this not only provides meal benefits but also provides waived or reduced fees for transportation and other school fees.”
Debbie Klein, food and nutrition director at Clear Creek Amana School District, said grab and go meals offered during the pandemic was a great opportunity for parents to see what’s in a school meal and learn what their kids like.
“One parent said she didn’t know her child liked grape tomatoes until she saw her daughter eating them as if they were candy,” Klein said. “So many parents expressed how much they really appreciated what we were doing providing meals to their students, whether it was grab and go curbside, meals served in the classroom or meals served in limited access to the school cafeteria.”
It will be a “huge impact” for some families when the free meal program is ended, Klein said.
“If we can provide free meals to students during the pandemic, we should be able to have this in place all the time,” Klein said.
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