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Oklahoma schools, families face additional economic burden, as universal free school lunch ends

A school lunch line.
A school lunch line.

Over the past few months, pandemic relief efforts have been winding down. One of the first to disappear was universal free lunches for public school students. But one Oklahoma district has found a workaround.

For more than two years during the pandemic, the waivers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture meant all kids qualified for free breakfasts and lunches. It saved families with one child hundreds of dollars per year, and for families with multiple kids, it saved thousands. It meant families who might qualify for free or reduced lunches didn’t have to handle paperwork, and no students had to navigate lunch debt.

But the program had an expiration date. Congress had the option to extend it, but there wasn’t much information coming out about whether lawmakers would.

“You know, we started hearing some things back in the spring, actually, that they were going to end that program,” said superintendent Chris Karch of Morris Public Schools, a small district in northeast Oklahoma. “We all were sitting back and hoping that they would, you know, something would happen. They would change their mind on that … With the economy, the downturn, we're hearing stories. We know that there are a lot of people in our community that are hurting.”

The USDA couldn’t authorize those waivers on their own. Because that policy was a break from federal guidelines, Congress had to sign off on it. When it came time to re-authorize the waivers this summer, lawmakers opted out.

Although some critics point the finger at the Biden Administration for failing to formally request an extension, according to reporting by Politico, some Republican lawmakers said it was time to let the break end, that the relief couldn’t go on forever.

But the people who work for Morris schools had seen what a boon the break was for the kids and their families. Cafeteria director Lousenda Pannell said as soon as meals were free, significantly more children were making their way through the lunch line.

“With the parents not having to worry about the bill, it's like, ‘Go eat,’” Pannell said. “You know, ‘You eat breakfast. You eat lunch.’ Because they don't have to worry about it. And I think with our older kids, they know that their parents don't have to worry about them, so they're more apt to come and eat.”

Pannell said kids in families who are struggling can miss meals, and it affects their education.

“The cafeteria is one of the most important places on the school campus because once you receive a good nutritious meal, you don't have to worry about your belly, you know, bothering you, and you're trying to study,” Pannell said. “Or the teacher having a behavior problem because the student hasn't had a good meal. So if everyone was able to eat for free, that would be something that we wouldn't have to worry about in our classrooms with our students.”

Karch said one of Morris’ school board members had an idea. The district had other COVID relief funding left over. The board could authorize using it to extend universal free lunches for another year.

“So I presented that at a board meeting, and it was unanimous,” Karch said.

Other schools have had to go back to normal.

Jennifer Bradley is the nutrition services director at Union Public Schools in Tulsa. She said Union has tried to keep prices down as much as possible and hasn't raised them since 2016. While it has some of the lowest prices in the state, it can still be a problem for families.

“We're charging $2.20 for elementary, $2.50 for middle school, and $2.70 (for high school),” Bradley said. “But even at that rate for a family, it would cost them for one child about $683 a year. It adds up and impacts and especially when they're feeling it from outside in the real world, you know, buying food and groceries.”

Buying groceries has gotten significantly more expensive this year. Grocery prices have increased nearly 11 percent just in 2022.

Bradley said her district has leaned into getting out as many free and reduced-lunch applications as possible to parents. Union is up to about 70 percent free and reduced.

Jennifer Weber is the executive director of child nutrition for the Oklahoma State Department of Education. She said the return to normal for some schools is universal free lunch. There are programs that allow districts to do this if they have a high enough percentage of approved free and reduced lunch applications. Or if enough children’s families are enrolled in federal poverty relief programs.

The bulk of meal funding is federal. None of it comes from state revenues. Schools order their food from approved vendors, following stringent guidelines. The USDA reimburses them at a standardized rate per meal.

“If the reimbursement doesn't cover the cost of feeding the kids at that site or that district, then nonfederal funds need to kick in there,” Weber said. “And sometimes that can be an issue for a school district that runs close on their budget.”

To hedge against these losses, the federal government requires districts to enforce policies that limit the number of meals kids can charge without paying.

“So, say it's ten charges, which would be two weeks of school,” Weber said. “And they say, OK, if you don't buy that tenth meal, if you haven't brought us money for today's meal or the prior meals that you owe for, they don't have to give them any food. Believe it or not, they don't. Most school districts aren't that cut and dry. They give them, like, maybe a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a carton of milk or a cheese sandwich.”

What is left of those charges is known as lunch debt.

Now, at the end of the year, if they don't pay that $100 balance, $50 balance, whatever it is, [districts] can continue to collect that for as long as they feel the need to. And we do have school districts that try to collect for several years,” Weber said. “And that is another issue that they haven't had to face the last two years… Because meals were free. And so that's another plus to having all free meals.”

From Union to Morris, whether the meals are free or not, those providing food to students know how critical a full belly is for learning.

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Catherine Sweeney was StateImpact Oklahoma's health reporter from 2020 to 2023.
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