Universal Free Lunch Program could create funding conundrum for local school district
A drop in applications for the National School Lunch Program could have negative effects on the district’s Title I funding
As part of the pandemic services that are getting extensions and additions, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced it would fund the universal free lunch program for another school year. And while the program is ultimately good — and benefits over 2,000 Eagle County students and families — it could reduce the funding that the school district receives as part of its participation in the National School Lunch Program.
The National School Lunch Program is a federally assisted meal program that was signed into law in 1946 by President Harry Truman. Eligibility — as well as the distinction between free and reduced — in this program is based off a number of factors including household size and income. Last year, the USDA made this program free as a result of the pandemic, meaning that all students were automatically eligible for free breakfast and lunch.
In Eagle County, approximately 36% of students rely on this program to receive either free or reduced meals.
“Sometimes the only food they get is from us,” said Tony Cardona, Nutrition Services area operations manager at Eagle County Schools. “We want to make sure we’re providing the best, nutritionally dense options for our children, but also make it appealing for them to eat.”
The application conundrum
Following statewide trends, Eagle County saw a drop in the number of free and reduced applications received last year, which could cause problems for school districts seeking funding. According to Cardona, between the 2019-2020 school year and the current 2020-2021 school year, the district saw a 4% decrease, from 37.19% to 33.10%, in application participation for the program before Oct. 1, an important funding deadline for the district.
While this drop could be a result of the pandemic — with high school students only in school two days a week, certain households transitioning to remote learning and other factors contributing — Chris Delsordo, director of nutrition services at Eagle County Schools, and Cardona hypothesized that the existence of the universal free lunch program has made families feel they don’t need to complete the annual free and reduced application.
“Our theory is, it’s really based around parents thinking that it doesn’t affect anything, but it affects a lot,” Cardona said.
Per the Public School Finance Act of 1994, districts in Colorado rely on the number applications to this program to receive Title I funding. The funding formula in this act includes an at-risk factor that is determined based on the number of students that qualify for free and reduced as well as the percentage of free and reduced students in individual school populations.
While households can apply to the free and reduced program at any time throughout the year and receive the benefits, the school relies on applications received between July 1 and Oct. 1 to receive appropriate funding for the year.
“It’s so important that we encourage everyone to fill out free and reduced lunch applications,” Delsordo said. “We really want to encourage families to continue to apply, and we know they’re going to eat for free, but it’s beneficial in the long run for everybody. Free and reduced is not all about food.”
According to Melisa Rewold-Thuon, assistant superintendent of student support services at Eagle County Schools, the funds received this year as a result of enrollment in the National Lunch Program amounted to $516,130. This sum funded salary and benefits for 5.4 intervention teachers, allowed St. Clare and Vail Christian Academy to support at-risk students, funded homeless student support services across the district, provided money for parent education and engagement activities as well as supported program administration costs.
This school year, to help combat the undercounted number of applications, the state did create a $19.9 million fund for affected school districts. It also allowed the use of waivers, which Eagle County Schools used, to use previous years’ at-risk and free and reduced numbers in applying for funding.
Beyond district funding
Beyond funding essential programs at schools, participation in the National School Lunch Program has additional benefits for families. Students that quality for free lunch have fees, for things like athletics and field trips, waived 100% and those that qualify for reduced lunches have fees reduced by 50%.
Families can also receive additional government financial support, during the pandemic, by completing them. The Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) benefit was given to households that apply for free and reduced meals and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. Households receive temporary emergency funds to purchase food as a result of their eligibility. The government recently extended P-EBT for another year.
Meals for all
Looking past the National School Lunch Program, Eagle County Schools’ Nutrition Services works year-round — even in a pandemic — to ensure that its students are fed. This includes partnerships with Food Bank of the Rockies for its grab-n-go program and with Neighborhood Navigators as well as an afterschool snack program, summer feeding and more.
And regardless of the complications surrounding applications, eligibility and deadlines, Delsordo and Cardona fully support the universal free lunch program.
“We both feel it should be free all the time,” Delsordo said. “Right now, it’s about paperwork, in my opinion, and we would love it to just be all about feeding everybody, and not have to worry about what their financial standing is.
Cardona added that in making lunches free for all, there could also be a reduction in stereotypes and discrimination surrounding participation in the free and reduced program.
“Removing the costs of those meals, for school lunch, is something that, in the long run, will help alleviate a lot of stress that families may feel in terms of thinking that school lunch is only for poor kids or something along those lines,” he said.