Free school lunches for all set to end, creating ‘perfect storm’ amid high inflation

Congressional child nutrition waivers that allowed for free meals in school and other food assistance measures are expiring June 30. Advocates say it couldn’t come at a worse time.

A federal waiver that made school breakfasts and lunches free to students regardless of their family’s income is set to expire June 30, eliminating a benefit that has helped millions of schoolchildren at a time when they need it more than ever, anti-hunger advocates say.

If the waivers end this month as scheduled, experts foresee a crisis as families, already facing soaring prices at supermarkets, gas stations and elsewhere, lose access to meals that their children have counted on for the last two years.

About 21 million students accessed free or reduced-price lunch each school day prior to the pandemic, said Jillien Meier, director of No Kid Hungry partnerships and campaign strategy. But up until 2020, enrolling students could be burdensome, both for parents who had to show proof that they qualified and for schools that collected the information, something that would be even more difficult now amid staffing shortages.

For the past two years, parents have not had to fill out applications. And because every student at their school was offered free breakfast and lunch, it reduced the stigma that some students had previously associated with receiving meals, Meier said.

The waivers allowed schools to distribute grab-and-go meals when they went remote. They are credited with helping avert what many feared would be a catastrophic spike in child hunger when the pandemic hit.

“We think that that is directly attributed to the flexibilities Congress gave. And now they’re refusing to extend those waivers.”