Center County schools stop free lunches, now free and reduced

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A federal program to cover the cost of school meals for all students will not be in effect for the 2022-23 school year.

Center Daily Times, file

When school starts later this month, lunches in Center County will no longer be free for all students.

For the past two years, the federal government has covered the cost of school meals for all students. This year, Congress declined to extend the program, which means families will have to go back to paying for lunches or signing up for free and reduced meal programs.

Now educators and lawmakers are calling on the state government to step in. Members of the state’s Senate Education Committee sent a letter Monday to Gov. Tom Wolf requesting urgent administrative action to extend free lunches for the 2022-23 school year.

The end of federal exemptions will be especially difficult for families who fall just outside of USDA income eligibility guidelines,” reads the letter, signed by the state Sen. Lindsey Williams, D-Allegheny, Sen. Jim Brewster, D-Allegheny, Sen. Carolyn Comitta, D-Chester and Sen. Tim Kearney, D-Delaware. “Additionally, some schools are being forced to increase meal prices, which means families who were paying before the pandemic will now pay more when the waivers expire.”

If Wolf takes action, Pennsylvania will join California, Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont in also covering school lunch costs in lieu of federal aid. Nevada, New York, Minnesota and Colorado have also offered free school lunch programs.

The Wolf administration is “carefully reviewing the letter from the Senate Education Committee and continuing to explore all options available to the administration to promote food security for our children and our Commonwealth,” a doorman said Friday. the governor’s office spoke to CDT in an email.

Wolf has previously called on Congress and the federal government to extend federal waivers.

“Additionally, the Pennsylvania Department of Education has requested all available waivers and will distribute $25 million to schools to supplement their school lunch expenses this fall,” the governor’s office wrote.

School districts prepare for change

For now, Center County Schools is urging eligible families to sign up for free and discounted lunches before the start of the school year. Families who were part of the program last year have a 30-day grace period to apply.

School districts in the Bellefonte and Philipsburg-Osceola area have posted reminders for families on their Facebook pages. Other districts have sent emails to parents with enrollment information and reminding parents to send their students lunch money this fall.

“Having the free meal programs has been a blessing to our entire community, but moving forward, we must be vigilant to ensure those who qualify go through the application process,” Assistant Superintendent Sherri Connell wrote. of Penns Valley, in an email. at CDT.

Doug Dyke, athletic director for the Bald Eagle Area School District, said only about 30 percent of families in the district enroll in the program, but nearly 50 percent could be eligible.

Meghan Schaper, director of food services at the State College Area School District, said the loss of federal waivers will hit families hard.

“It’s been really, really helpful for families that they can just send their kids to school and know they’re going to have lunch and not have to go through the bureaucracy of asking for free and reduced meals if they get there. are eligible,” Schaper said.

The free lunch exemption has made the lunch program “transparent” over the past two years, Schaper said, making the process easier for families and the district.

“Having more children participate in the lunch program has brought more money into the program, which helps us buy better quality food, helps us replace equipment, helps us pay our staff,” she said. “So it was really a win-win situation. With the free meals gone, that’s going to go away as well.

During the pandemic, SCASD offered limited meal options, which simplified its work and helped address staff shortages. Although the waivers are gone, Schaper said the district will keep the menu more limited, offering two elementary school lunch options instead of four.

Now, the district’s already slim profit margins for lunches will drop further as fewer students receive meals at school and food prices rise. Schaper said SCASD will pay 25% more for food this year due to inflation.

How to register

Families who meet the eligibility criteria can register online at the Department of Human Resources website. Paper applications can be printed and turned into district offices to apply.

Families must reapply each year, but can apply for the program at any time.

School starts for SCASD students on Tuesday, August 23. The Philipsburg-Osceola Area School District begins August 24. Bellefonte, Penns Valley and Bald Eagle area school districts begin Tuesday, August 30.

Keely Doll is an education reporter and service reporter for the Center Daily Times. She previously worked for the Columbia Missourian and The Independent UK.

Christy J. Olson