For the past two years, there has been such a thing as a free lunch – and breakfast – for students in most Delaware schools.
But that’s changing for the 2022-23 school year for about half the students.
All public schools in Delaware and nonprofit private schools are eligible for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s school nutrition program that helps provide low-cost meals for all students along with reduced-cost and free meals for students from low-income households.
But during the pandemic, the USDA provided funds for free meals for all students in all schools in the program, regardless of income.
When schools were closed in the spring of 2020, some districts offered meals that could be picked up at the schools. Some districts took buses into neighborhoods to drop off meals. Some did both.
“It’s been a very busy couple of years for our school nutrition staffs,” said Aimee F. Beam, education associate in the Delaware Department of Education Nutrition Programs. “When the school buildings shut down, we never stopped.”
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Red Clay School District manager of nutrition services Jessica Terranova said, “As soon as COVID hit, we pulled together curbside meals at schools. We had buses taking meals to neighborhoods.”
When some students returned to school and some students stayed home for virtual classes by computer, the USDA continued providing free meals for students, either in school or for pick up for those taking virtual classes.
For the 2021-2022 school year, federal funding for free meals continued, but the pandemic program funding ended on June 30.
Some districts have announced on their websites that the free and reduced-price meal program was returning to the pre-pandemic policy next school year, with parents or guardians filling out forms with proof of income and the number of people living in the household to determine if their children were eligible.
During the 2019-2020 school year, before the pandemic, 31.7% of families in Delaware had a child receiving a free or reduced-price meal at school, according to the Kids Count report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Some schools still offering free meals to all
There are a few exceptions.
The free meals will continue with no forms required at schools that qualify for a community eligibility provision that allows free lunches for all students if a certain percentage of households in that community are enrolled in federal food programs like SNAP, the supplemental nutrition assistance program, and TANF, temporarily assistance for needy families.
About half the public schools in the state are included in that program, which has been in place for about six years, said Beam.
In the Red Clay School District, 19 schools qualify for the community eligibility provision, said Terranova.
But seven district schools don’t.
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How to apply for free or reduced-price meals
Students at schools like the seven in the Red Clay District will need a parent or guardian to fill out the free and reduced-price meal eligibility form.
“We are getting the word out any way we can,” said Terranova, “on our website, with messages to families, in back-to-school welcome packets. We’re also hitting it heavily on social media to let families know that we’re returning to regular paid-meal status for those who don’t qualify for free or reduced meals at those seven schools.”
Most districts offer the eligibility form on their websites, and help is available either at the schools or at district child nutrition offices.
For 2022-23, a single parent with a child can have a yearly income up to $33,874 for the child to qualify for reduced-priced meals or up to $23,803 for free meals, according to the USDA.
A family of four qualifies for reduced-price meals if their income is up to $51,338 or free meals with an income up to $36,075.
For the income requirements for other household sizes, see the USDA web page.
Full-price lunches vary among districts but are about $1.50 to $1.75 at the middle school and high schools – less at the elementary schools which have smaller meal portion sizes.
Reduced-price lunches are 40 cents at all schools.
Other sources of help are available.
“Many districts are able to use some of their funding to waive the cost of a reduced-price meal,” said Beam. “We even have some community partners that help to offset those costs. School nutrition programs can accept donations for that. We have various organizations who ask how they can help either pay for the reduced-price meals or pay off what students owe for meals.”
Reach reporter Ben Mace at [email protected]