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A free school meal program is ending, leaving central Pa. experts and parents worried

Students filled the stairs inside the State College Area High School in 2018.
Min Xian
State High students filled the stairs in this file photo from 2018. State College Area School District's Food Service Director Megan Schaper said there are many consequences of ending free school meals open to all students.

The Universal School Meals Program Act of 2021 made all students eligible for free breakfast and lunch during the pandemic. Now, parents must individually apply to programs like the National School Breakfast and National School Lunch programs to see if they qualify for aid, which is determined based on gross income and family size.

Megan Schaper is the food service director for the State College Area School District. She said the criteria to receive free meals through these programs is black and white, and fails to take certain financial hardships into consideration.

“Every year I talk to a couple families who have some unusual circumstance: larger than usual medical bills or multiple children in college. And they’ve got bigger, more expenses than typical. But the approval for free school meals doesn’t take any of that into effect,” Schaper said.

Schaper said only taking a family’s gross income into consideration can prevent families in need of aid from receiving assistance.

“I spoke to a family the other day who have six children and some medical bills that would not normally be typical, and they’re not eligible. I spoke to a mother, there are six children in the family, and they just missed the guidelines. They are off by, it was a little more than $100 that they exceeded the income guidelines,” Schaper said.

Schaper has been a food service director for 33 years. She said the pandemic was the first time universal free meals were a reality.

“It really was because of the pandemic and just the situation with so many families struggling financially, especially at the very beginning when people were being laid off of jobs or not allowed to be able to go into their jobs. It was just an easy way for the federal government to be able to support families,” Schaper said.

Many parents told Schaper it was a financial help. She said there are other benefits, including removing the stigma of receiving aid.

“There’s nothing that points out that a student’s getting free meals. But even though that is the case and even though I reassure parents and students that that is the case, they still kind of feel like it’s not. That people will know,” Schaper said.

Schaper said twice as many students ate breakfast at school when it was free for everyone.

She said providing free meals also streamlines the process for cafeteria workers, ensures that children get adequate nutrition in their meals and helps them participate in the classroom.

The end of the free school lunches is a big loss for State College resident Katy Stager. She has two children in elementary school and two in preschool. She said the universal free lunches were “phenomenal” for her family.

“The free lunch program through State College Area School District has just been a really nice way to ensure that we were able to make ends meet with the loss of income, as our family grows and requires more, without having to qualify or apply for assistance,” Stager said.

She said her family is still struggling financially from the pandemic and is being hit hard by increased food costs.

“We experienced varying degrees of lost income due to the pandemic. And for us, some of that income is permanent loss. It will not be recovered or restored for our family. So as a result, over the last two and a half years, I also became a student. So, I am back in school pursuing a major career change,” Stager said.

But still, Stager said her family does not qualify for free or reduced meals this year.

Free school meals can also be implemented on a schoolwide basis through the federal Community Eligibility Provision program, which covers schools with high poverty rates. In order to qualify, 40% of the student body must be eligible for free lunches. Schaper said none of the schools in the State College Area School District meet these criteria.

“State College is not eligible for that program. We’re not even close,” Schaper said.

Teresa Lodes is the director of food and nutrition for the Saint Marys Area School District, where 43% of students this year met the criteria for free lunches. She said she’s happy all the schools in the district are participating in the Community Eligibility Provision program this school year.

“It just means that the kids can eat. And we all know that if a child has food in their belly, they are better at concentrating on their schoolwork and having a better life in general just because they have food in their stomach,” Lodes said.

She said prior to the pandemic, only the three elementary schools in the Saint Marys Area School District qualified for schoolwide free meals. This year, the middle school and high school also qualified. She said before the school district announced the availability of free meals for this academic year, some people were worried.

“There were concerns. They were worried, they were like, ‘Do I need to start saving money to pay for lunches?’” Lodes said.

The school district’s business manager Ginger Williams said students won’t have to pay for school meals this year. But the district may have to contribute local funds to the Community Eligibility Provision program. The district will receive federal funds based on the 43% of students who qualify for aid, but any costs in excess of those reimbursement funds will need to be covered by other means.

Schaper is advocating for a permanent solution to ensure that school children are well-fed, without parents having to worry about meeting the qualifications for assistance.

“I think it is too late for the upcoming school year, but we can all be talking to our legislators. This has to come from the federal government, so it has to be coming from our senators and our representatives. So, anybody who wants to pick up the phone or write a letter, I would encourage them to do that,” Schaper said.