By Zoe Han
As the federal government’s universal school meals program draws to a close, nutrition experts are urging eligible parents to send in applications
The universal school meals program will not continue in the current school year, which means that all school meals will not be free for the first time in nearly two years. But eligible families can still receive help with school meals, as long as they hand in the documents.
The universal school meals program was part of the federal government’s emergency nutritional assistance – a service that was expanded in 2020 to help families through the worst days of the COVID-19 pandemic when millions of people lost their jobs.
Under this program, all children enrolled in public schools received free meals under the federal school breakfast program and the school lunch program. It was not renewed for the new school year.
The federal government will continue to provide free school meals to children whose families have an annual income at or below 130% of the federal poverty level. For most states, that translates to an annual salary of $34,450 or less for a family of four.
If a household has an annual income between 130% and 185% of the federal poverty level, children in that household are eligible for discounted meals – 30 cents for breakfast and 40 cents for lunch.
Parents can submit applications year-round, according to the Department of Agriculture. Schools typically contact parents at the start of the school year for applications, and when that happens, experts say get them in as soon as possible.
If parents are unsure whether or not the school needs them to complete an application, contact the school district and the school, said Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and after-school time programs at the Food Research and Action Center. , a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that helps fight poverty-related hunger and lack of nutrition.
“But I wouldn’t wait to do it,” FitzSimons told MarketWatch. “Because the sooner you are certified, the better.”
For the first 30 days of the school year, carrying over eligibility from the previous year allows families to continue to receive free meals, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. This flexibility is intended to give families the opportunity to catch up on paperwork for the new school year.
Check if automatic registration applies to you
If you are eligible, you will need to apply for free school meals. However, there are two exceptions.
The first exception: If the school participates in the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), local school districts in high-poverty areas will provide free school meals to all students in the school, saving parents time and effort required to complete applications. (The measure for determining high poverty areas varies, but you can also search for your school in this database.)
Although rare, a household with multiple children can sometimes have one child attending a CEP school, while the other does not and therefore requires an application, said Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of child relations. media at the School Nutrition Association, a non-profit organization. with over 50,000 members providing low-cost meals to millions of children in the United States
Second exception: If the household is part of the federal aid program, the student must automatically be enrolled in the free meals program.
Several examples include families receiving benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). All children in the family who attend school and receive SNAP benefits will automatically qualify for free meals. This rule also applies to families receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR).
The process, called direct certification, will automatically extend free meals to those children, but it’s always a good idea to check with the school to make sure, Pratt-Heavner said.
Apply, even if your state provides free meals
Several states are working to roll out their versions of universal school lunch programs. A few states, including California, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada and Vermont, will continue to provide free school meals to all public school students for the current school year, regardless of household income level. .
Even so, experts said eligible parents should still send in their applications, as it helps schools secure adequate funding to support it.
As school breakfasts and lunches operate under federal guidelines, schools are reimbursed by the federal government for free lunch support. The level of reimbursement the school receives depends on the number of requests it receives from parents, Pratt-Heavner told MarketWatch.
“If a family that is eligible for a free meal doesn’t apply, the state will have to pay more money for the cost of preparing that meal,” Pratt-Heavner said, and that could lead to less funding in d other areas. for students, and may also impact how long the state can support the free lunch program.
What about ineligible parents?
“We are extremely concerned that there will be families and students falling through the cracks this year,” Pratt-Heavner told MarketWatch. “Getting families to apply for meal allowances has always been a challenge. But it’s even more so now.
His concerns relate to households that are just above the eligibility threshold but still need assistance, especially for those living in urban areas that have seen a steep rise in the cost of living over the past few years. last two years.
Millions of families are struggling with rising prices. The inflation rate stood at 8.3% in August year on year and food prices rose by 11.4%. Both are the highest in 40 years.
Two-thirds of Americans said in late July they had worried at least once in the previous month about not being able to afford groceries, and households with young children reported stress levels the highest, according to a LendingTree survey.
Parents can always turn to schools and the community for help, Pratt-Heavner said, as some schools have weekend backpacking programs where families in need can bring home extra food from school.
“No child should go hungry during the school day,” she said. “No child should have to walk into the cafeteria wondering if they have enough money in their account to eat today, which is why it’s so important that the federal government for Congress take action and provide these meals.
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