School Lunches No Longer Free for All Students; Families Scramble 'We have to shift everything'

July 14, 2022, 4 a.m. ·

Penny and her three kids talk with Nebraska Public Media inside Penny's Foster Mom's kitchen in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Penny VanLear and her three kids (from left: Ryan, Laura, Sarah) talk with Nebraska Public Media inside VanLear's mom's kitchen in Lincoln, Nebraska. (Photo by Aaron Bonderson, Nebraska Public Media News)

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Millions of families nationwide have not had to pay for lunch in public schools and nonprofit private schools. Unless changes are made in a federal program before the school year, most students will need to fill their pockets with lunch money again.

17-year-old Laura Parden, a soon-to-be senior at Lincoln Northeast High School, enjoyed not having to carry around money for lunch.

“I appreciate being able to go to lunch and not to worry about paying,” Pardon said.

Laura and her twin siblings, Sarah and Ryan Parden, 14, received free meals at school over the past two years.

“It's got to save about $200 a month easily–doing the free lunches,” Penny VanLear said, mother of Laura, Sarah, and Ryan Parden. “Because, they would get free breakfast, and they would get free lunches.”

The U.S. Congress passed the “Keep Kids Fed Act,” which returns the school lunch program to an income-based system. The act passed just days before the universal free lunch program was scheduled to end June 30.

VanLear was shocked and panicked to hear the news.

“Crap, I got to reach out [and] figure out the budget,” she said.

Who qualifies?

Penny VanLear works two jobs. One at H&R Block where she’s been for 12 years. The other at the City of Lincoln’s Treasury office.

VanLear said they didn’t have to worry about paying for lunches before the pandemic.

“We were still qualifying for free at that point, with the four kids,” VanLear said.

Adam, 19, has since graduated and goes to Southeast Community College in Lincoln.

Now with three dependents instead of four, VanLear is put into a different income bracket. She fears her three kids won’t qualify for free lunches.

“In order to get the free and reduced [with four kids], you had to make less than $42,000 a year,” VanLear said. “I make about $40,000, because they count gross [income], plus child support.”

“I was just barely under the limit. And now that I have three kids, I won't qualify, because it goes down to $37,000,” she said.

Currently, households making less than 130% of the poverty line qualify for free lunches, according to the state Department of Education. For example, in a four-person household, the poverty line is $27,750…130% of that income line equals $36,075. Therefore, four-person households making less than $36,075 before taxes get free lunch.

For households making between 130% and 185% of the poverty line, their children qualify for a discounted $0.40 per lunch price and $0.30 per breakfast price. The poverty line is updated annually by the Department of Health and Human Services.

45.2% of Nebraska public school students from the 2018-19 school year received free or reduced lunch. That’s 147,328 students.

The United States Department of Agriculture released its annual report on free and reduced lunches detailing who qualifies. The report is derived from rules set by Congress and the department of health’s poverty determinations.

USDA issues the lunch price eligibility guidelines at the start of July. It's based-off poverty reports published six months prior.

Some school districts get free lunch for all students. A school can apply to become a Community Eligible Provision school, if more than 40% of its students are eligible for free and reduced lunch. USDA selects the schools who need complete meal reimbursement the most. The program started in 2014.

Omaha Public Schools is approved as a CEP. Each student at OPS will receive free lunch this school year through the 2024-25 school year. There are 22 total districts in Nebraska that qualified for CEP in 2021-22.

Inflation: ‘Families are having to scramble’

VanLear’s kids will qualify for reduced price lunches, per the active rules. However, lunches alone will cost her about $25 more per month than she planned. It would cost her about $170 per month to pay for full-priced school lunches.

“I still have a house payment of $1000 a month,” she said. “I still have a car payment, even though it's only $260 a month.”

That’s not to mention historically high everyday costs and steadily high inflation rates.

“With the price of gas going up drastically and the price of food going up drastically, we have to shift everything and either pick up more hours at work or cut expenses somewhere, and we've already cut as many expenses as we can,” VanLear said.

VanLear and her kids currently live in Garland, Nebraska, a 216-person village northwest of Lincoln. They make the 26 minute commute to Lincoln for work and school.

“I couldn't afford to rent right now, because I have a four bedroom house,” VanLear said. “That's gonna be $1400-1500 here in town (Lincoln).”

One thing that helps her with food costs is living in a rural area. It gives VanLear a chance to be more self-sufficient.

“We have a big garden this year,” she said. “We have chicken, so we eat a lot of eggs.”

VanLear said she visits the fruit and vegetable truck at the Food Bank of Lincoln when needed.

Alynn Sampson talks with Nebraska Public Media at the food bank in Lincoln.
Alynn Sampson talks with Nebraska Public Media at the food bank's conference room in Lincoln, Nebraska. (Photo by Aaron Bonderson, Nebraska Public Media News)

Alynn Sampson, vice president of operations at the Food Bank of Lincoln, said people losing free lunch will send more people to her organization.

“Now families are having to scramble and figure out, ‘not only are gas prices higher and food in general–those prices are higher,’ now there's this addition of having to figure out, ‘how do we provide lunch,’”? Sampson said.

Food Bank of Lincoln covers 16 counties in southeast Nebraska.

Sampson said public donations are lower than normal. However, the food bank purchases a majority of its products in large quantities. Sampson said the current supply chain makes that difficult.

“When the pandemic hit, we were experiencing month-long delays,” Sampson said. “We would order food in the spring and we weren't getting it until the fall. That has gotten better, but the prices have increased dramatically.”

Another factor hitting people and organizations hard is the price of gas.

From one year ago to now, unleaded gas rose about $1.70 per gallon. With a long commute from Garland to Lincoln each day, VanLear’s glad she purchased a more fuel efficient car before gas price hikes.

Stephanie Sullivan talks with Nebraska Public Media in front of a pallet of pears in the food bank's warehouse.
Stephanie Sullivan talks with Nebraska Public Media in front of a pallet of pears in the food bank's warehouse. (Photo by Aaron Bonderson, Nebraska Public Media News)

Stephanie Sullivan is with the Food Bank of the Heartland based in Omaha. Sullivan said serving 77 counties in Nebraska is difficult to budget.

“Our freight (transportation) costs have tripled since last year,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan said most products and services have reached the highest costs ever. The food bank is constantly searching for more efficient, cost effective ways to bring in fresh food, Sullivan said.

Andrew Ashelford talks with an employee from behind his desk.
Andrew Ashelford talks with an employee from behind his desk. (Photo by Aaron Bonderson, Nebraska Public Media News)

Over 98% of schools in a 2021 survey reported shortages of menu items and supplies, according to the School Nutrition Association. Andrew Ashelford, Lincoln Public Schools nutrition services director, said his district was no different.

“We've had to do some [menu changes],” he said, “but at Lincoln Public Schools we have a warehouse… The warehouse allows us to typically know well in advance, six to seven weeks, before a short.”

Turkey and turkey roasts have been the most expensive recently, Ashelford said. Paper trays and other disposable utensils are getting pricey and hard to find, too.

Ashelford said LPS will be upping its meal prices this fall, due to increasing prices.

“LPS did raise our meal prices for paid meals a nickel this last year,” Ashelford said.

Full priced meals at LPS will cost $2.85 at the high school level, $2.70 for middle school students, and $2.50 per meal at the elementary level.

That’s why Ashelford wants to make sure it’s communicated clearly and often to fill out the free and reduced application.

“[We’re] making sure... families that are close to any of those cut off ranges, to make sure they spend the 10-15 minutes to fill out that application,” Ashelford said.

He said the application can be filled out more than once, especially if a families’ income changes during the school year.

LPS began taking paper applications at the start of the month. Ashelford said an online application opens on July 20th. Most school districts in Nebraska should have applications open by now or in the coming weeks.

Penny VanLear said the forms are relatively painless to complete.

“Filling out the paperwork to apply for it isn't bad. It just takes a little while to get your answer,” VanLear said. “LPS makes the process pretty simple.”

LPS serves 26,000 lunches per day and 4.4 million lunches per year, Ashelford said.

Increasing costs don’t end at lunches for Ms. VanLear, either. From medical expenses to insurance to house damage, Ms. VanLear and the kids have been required to stretch their emergency funds.

“We had hail damage on our house,” VanLear said. “The deductible is $2800. We went and we got the waterproof tape and we taped up the holes because we can't afford the $2800,” VanLear said.

It wasn’t for the lack of planning. VanLear said she saved six months worth of living expenses. Now, that’s down to three months.

It’s even harder to save when people are less likely to pay for odd jobs, VanLear said.

“Every way that I used to make money and be able to pick up extra money, cleaning houses or something,” VanLear said, “that's all gone, because people don't have money to pay for the extra.”

All the increasing costs and other factors add up.

“We're cutting back,” VanLear said. “We're doing more TV dinners and things that aren't as healthy and trying to supplement with the fruits and vegetables that are on sale.”

VanLear estimates that she’ll have just $400 per month to spend on food this fall.

Where to go from here?

Alynn Sampson with the Food Bank of Lincoln said they’re going to order food more in advance going forward.

“We are making sure that we have enough food in the building in case our backpack numbers go up,” Sampson said, “or the number of students that we see at our food distributions go up.”

The Backpack Program includes getting fresh food to kids on Friday afternoon, so they can eat on the weekends. Sampson said her organization is researching what will change this fall.

Food Bank of Lincoln's warehouse
Food Bank of Lincoln's warehouse (Photo by Aaron Bonderson, Nebraska Public Media News)

“We're looking at snacky-type items that families could pack in their lunches,” Sampson said, “to try to make it stretch and trying to do a lot of research now of, ‘what is it that families are really looking for? What do we need to make sure that we have at our distributions or in our backpacks?’”

Ashelford said LPS saved time the past two years, not having to chase students for lunch money. They also had less paperwork to file with the state, since meals were free everywhere.

“It is just kind of nice not to have to worry and put that time in, when you can focus on feeding the students,” he said.

Ashelford said, like many industries, schools are short on staff as well. About 95% of schools reported staff shortage in 2021. He said LPS ordered food weeks ahead of time last school year.

“Instead of ordering enough for just one menu time,” Ashelford said. “We would try to order enough for three to four many times.”

School districts also had relaxed requirements over the past two years. Schools weren’t fined for falling short on nutrition requirements, as they were pre-pandemic, due to the slow supply chain. The Keep Kids Fed Act states the following…

“The authority of the Secretary [of Agriculture] to establish or grant a waiver…shall expire on September 30, 2022.”

USDA spokespeople said the Nebraska Department of Education has been approved for a full slate of flexibilities for school lunch programs next school year. The organization also commented:

  • "President Biden signed the Keep Kids Fed Act, providing additional funding and nationwide authorities to USDA to equip schools, summer meal sites, and child care food programs with extra resources, so they can continue serving children through school year 2022-2023. USDA is currently in the process of developing guidance for this funding and program authority, which will be shared with states as soon as it is available.”

As far as students go, Laura Parden, VanLear’s second oldest child, said universal free lunches had academic benefits.

“It’s less stressful to not have to worry about the money side,” Laura Parden said “I can just focus on my studies.”

It’s not just the urban areas of Nebraska affected.

Allison Pritchard talks on a Zoom call.
Allison Pritchard talks on a Zoom call about Elba Public Schools lunch program. (Photo by Aaron Bonderson, Nebraska Public Media News)

Allison Pritchard, Elba Public School Superintendent, said the 128-student district has a free and reduced lunch rate of about 74%. The town with a population of 215 is about 40 minutes north of Grand Island, Nebraska.

“I have some kids that definitely don't have a lot of food at home,” Pritchard said. “It's a concern with our social-emotional growth. So yeah, it will definitely be missed by the families that don't qualify.”

Pritchard said her elementary and secondary school have free snacks in the office for students that need them. She said students relied on that system less the past two years.

“I've had fewer people coming to the office for snacks, granola bars and healthy snacks to get them through the morning,” Pritchard said.

Garland’s VanLear said lawmakers should raise the maximum income for free lunch or look at net income–instead of gross income.

“Their income guideline–the $37,000 sounds like a lot but that's gross–before they take out the Medicare and the Social Security tax and your federal tax,” VanLear said. “When I'm bringing home $2000 a month that's quite a bit different, when $1000 goes into my house payment. You started divvying out the rest, there's not a lot left.”

“When you're trying to survive on $2000, even though the paper says $3000 (in gross income),'' VanLear said, “It's a world of difference.”

August 30th is the final day for school districts to approve/deny free or reduced lunch applications, according to the state department of education’s calendar.