COLORADO SPRINGS — A federal program that helped expand access to school meals will expire this summer.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, districts have been able to provide free breakfast and lunch to all K-12 kids, but the federal universal free meal program is set to end June 30th. The federal program was left out of the bipartisan omnibus package approved by Congress.
"School districts will have to transition back to not receiving the nutrition waivers and additional assistance in feeding students," said Shelley Becker, Assistant Superintendent and Chief Financial Officer for Harrison School District 2.
Becker says the program ending means the district will no longer receive federal reimbursement of up to 20, 30, or 40 percent.
"It does have an impact, especially to the bottom line and receiving some federal assistance," said Becker. "Something we're seeing already is the gas prices, and fuel surcharge. For Harrison, we get milk shipments twice a week, but the only milk supplier authorized for nutrition services for schools is based in Englewood, Colorado, which is
Denver. Just when prices are going up in fuel, we're starting to see a diesel or fuel surcharge added on just to get the milk delivered to our district. We're starting to see an 11 or 20 percent increase on packaging items like cardboard and plastics. If your hamburgers come wrapped and sealed, there are additional costs and charges."
She says the free lunch program helped the district keep kids fed during the pandemic.
"It has allowed for us if we've had to do some one time spending, buy some additional food staples or commodities, we've been able to do that," said Becker.
Now that the program is ending, Becker says there may be changes to lunchtime.
"It could mean if prices go so high and there's no federal reimbursement revenue, there could be expensive menu items that we may not be able to serve. Might it mean we have to take some of those items off the the menu, maybe have not as many choices for students," said Becker.
Harrison School District won't be the only district making tweaks to the menu.
"Without the funding, we have to look at food alternatives. Food quality could go down, the number of staff could go down. We don't want to get to the point where we're serving boxed meals everyday, but that is a real possibility if we have to shut down kitchens because we can't afford to have staff in buildings," said Kent Wehri, Food and Nutrition Director for Colorado Springs School District 11.
Wehri says those federal funds have been vital to the nutrition program. The district received an extra $1.36 per meal (federal reimbursement) which helped with inflated food costs.
"When we have to buy foods at a 40 to 50 percent markup, that funding helped us get by the last two years. We were able to work with our vendors and supplies to get food from different vendors and use those funds to help offset those costs, " said Wehri. "That funding has allowed us the flexibility to purchase foods when we don't have through the food supply system and has allowed us to keep our staff employed."
The end of the federal program will mean big changes for next school year, and to the summer meal program.
"We won't be able to allow people to drive and go with their meals. They will have to stay and eat at the place where we're at, and that's going to be a big shift for the community," said Wehri.
During this time, districts say families have not had to fill out the free and reduced lunch forms. When the free lunch program ends, those who qualify will have to again. District 11 has seen a large dip in applications, and encourage families to file immediately. Here are the links to District 2 and District 11.
State lawmakers are working to continue providing free meals to all students. SB22-087 would reimburse schools for meals for kids who don’t meet the income qualifications for free or reduced lunch.
State Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, who co-sponsored the bill, said the sticking point for lawmakers is the cost of up to $118 million a year. She and other sponsors plan to introduce amendments to bring the cost down.
“There’s a whole gap of kids that are losing out on the opportunity to take advantage of free and reduced meals because they don't meet that income criteria, yet their family is still struggling,” Fields said.
If the bill passes, it would take effect starting in the 2023-2024 school year, assuming the state is selected for a pilot federal program to use Medicaid eligibility to identify students eligible for free school meals.