School districts, families adjust to sunset of federal universal meals program

SHERIDAN —  When the federal program that paid for free meals for grade-school students during the pandemic ended last summer, some states stepped in to cover the cost for school districts to provide universal free meals for all students. Other school districts, like those in Sheridan County, reabsorbed those costs along with families of school children.

First Lady Jennie Gordon’s Wyoming Hunger Initiative and Meridian Trust North Star Foundation partnered to eliminate the meal debt accrued during the first two weeks of the 2022-2023 school year in an effort to allow families to transition to the National School Lunch Program, but many families have not enrolled in the program, despite encouragement from local school officials.

“Not all households have chosen to complete the federal application to qualify for free or reduced priced meals,” said Brandon Finney, business manager for Sheridan County School District 2. “Federal income eligibility guidelines that qualify a household to receive free and reduced priced meals have not matched the increased inflation we are seeing across the country, making the income requirements extremely low to qualify.”

According to the National School Lunch Program’s website, children are automatically eligible for free meals if anyone in their household receives aid through programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. 

Children experiencing homelessness, in foster care, runaway youth or children of migrant workers also qualify when a member of the household completes the application. For families not receiving those benefits, income qualifications could also apply. For example, a child in a family of four with an annual income of $51,338 or less would also qualify.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government provided waivers that allowed schools to offer meals to all students, regardless of family income, and also provided additional dollars to school meal programs. The effort during the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 school years sought to reduce the burden on families as they navigated the effects of the pandemic and centered on studies that show a connection between hunger and reduced learning.

Sheridan County School District 2 has seen a quick uptick in the food service debt on its books this school year. By November 2022, the debt had reached $14,000 and by Feb. 28, it had reached $18,848.

SCSD2 is working to structure a clear policy for meal debt, Finney said.

“While many districts have strict policies on meal debt, SCSD2’s is structured to allow for all kids, regardless of debt, to receive a full hot meal (breakfast and/or lunch) each day while still encouraging financial accountability,” Finney said. 

Sheridan County School District 1 Business Manager and Food Service Director Jeremy Smith said the schools in Big Horn and the Tongue River Valley haven’t seen an unusual level of student meal debt. 

The district, as of March 28, was owed about $3,400 by families — with a significant amount coming from about two dozen students. 

“This number ebbs and flows throughout the month and the year,” Smith said. “Christmas time is harder financially for families and so it gets a bit higher, but levels out through the winter. We just came off of spring break, so the balance owed will drop back as parents send checks to their schools to reduce balances.”

SCSD1 operates schools in the National School Lunch Program — the elementary schools — and locally supported schools — the secondary schools. Smith said the meal debt tends to be higher at the district’s secondary schools.

School food service programs are enterprise funds and do not receive support from the Wyoming Legislature through the block grant. 

While districts bring in revenue from meal sales and federal reimbursements, SCSD2 also supplements the program from its general fund with an additional $250,000 each year. 

For SCSD1, since 1999 that amount has ranged from no subsidy needed in four of the years to $205,000 in 2018. In fiscal year 2022, the district budgeted a subsidy of $90,000, though Smith said this year no subsidy may be needed. Smith said several factors contributed to that. 

The district raised lunch prices commensurate with the food products and labor inflation projections. In addition, the district reduced overhead costs by consolidating the food service director position with Smith’s role, transitioned to a seven-week cycle menu to reduce food products ordered and joined a food purchasing coop.  

“Most importantly, we have excellent staff at each school that takes this responsibility very seriously,” Smith said. 

In addition to reducing costs in-house, schools often work with nonprofits in the community such as The Food Group, churches and private donors to ensure children are fed and meal debt is eliminated. 

Following the pandemic, some states have moved to institute universal free lunch programs. 

California and Maine state legislatures made the program permanent when the federal pandemic program expired during the summer of 2022. In November in Colorado, voters approved offering public schools the option to provide universal free breakfasts and lunches. It isn’t required of all schools, but those that participate will be reimbursed the full cost of all meals provided.

Other states have also extended the program through the current school year but have not made the program permanent, and some have introduced similar bills but have not seen them move forward yet.

Smith said he would have mixed feelings regarding a statewide program offering free meals for students.

“Generally, it's the ‘golden rule,’ he who has the gold, makes the rules," Smith said. "The current federal program has some significant rules that are extremely difficult for rural districts to follow.  

“My guess would be that it would be even more onerous to follow rules for a program that provides free meals to all kids,” Smith continued, adding federal rules represented one reason the district left the national program for its secondary students and developed its own. 

“In general, I would not support free meals for all kids with the assumption that the federal government wouldn't let us be creative in the delivery or to make decisions that would be best for our kids. If the feds would be as flexible about the rules as they were during COVID, then I could get behind ‘free meals for all kids,’” he said. 

Finney said universal free meals for students would be supported “as SCSD2 is all about helping children and families.” 

He added the Wyoming Legislature could address the issue with a policy decision executed either through a bill or through the recalibration efforts undertaken every four years.

One of The Food Group’s founders and SCSD2 Trustee Arin Waddell said the overall food service budget for the district is approximately $2.3 million, and the district is not reimbursed its full costs by the National School Lunch Program. 

“The reason permanent universal school meals make sense is that no child can learn if they are hungry,” Waddell said. “Hungry children cannot focus on the lessons at hand.  Do the citizens of Wyoming care about the well being of every child? If the answer is yes, healthy food at school every day could be a major part of that success.”  

Waddell added that while SCSD2 is fortunate, not all communities are. 

“SCSD2 has had generous private donors pick up the tab for lunch debt, which some years has been over $20,000,” Waddell said. “That works here, where we have so many philanthropists, but what about the other communities throughout the state?”