Why Universal School Meals Expiring Would Be ‘Devastating’ For This School District
Kim Cullipher became the school nutrition director for Perquimans County Schools one week before the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools in March 2020. Back then, the nutrition department faced challenges due to a large amount of unpaid school meal debt — charges that accrue when a student is unable to pay for their meal.
“It was just an astronomical amount of money,” said Cullipher. “We would either have to write it off or the local government would have to step in. We did have some local donations that would assist, but it was never enough to cover the multitude that we had.”
A survey by the School Nutrition Association found that 75% of school districts nationwide had unpaid student meal debt at the end of the 2017-18 school year and the median amount of unpaid meal debt per district rose by 70% since the 2012-13 school year.
Then the pandemic hit, and a series of waivers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) granted school nutrition departments flexibilities normally not available. This included being able to serve meals under the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), which provides higher per-meal reimbursements and allows free meals to be served to all children ages 18 and under. In Perquimans County, Cullipher’s department pivoted quickly, offering meals to students via school bus delivery and curbside pickup.
Since then, Perquimans County Schools has continued to serve free meals to all students under ongoing waivers from the USDA, as have 90% of school districts nationwide. But without Congressional action, these waivers will expire on June 30, 2022, marking the end of a more than two-year period where school meals were provided at no cost to students across the country.
In a recent email to Lynn Harvey, director of school nutrition and district operations for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, Cullipher shared what the discontinuation of universal free school meals would mean for her district.
“Perquimans County is a small, rural county and the largest employer in the county is the school system. There is not a lot of wealth in our county, but a lot of families that are just barely getting by. Our county is built off of farm families and working class families living paycheck to paycheck and they oftentimes just miss qualifying for free or reduced meals by dollars, and I mean times such as $4,” she wrote.
“Universal meals have been AMAZING! The outpouring of appreciation and love for this from the community has been overwhelming and eye opening. To take this away, especially during a time when the economy is as it is right now, would be devastating.”
Cullipher is not alone in her desire to see school meal flexibilities, including the option to offer free school meals to all students, extended beyond June 30. In February, nearly 2,000 national, state, and local organizations from every state signed a letter urging Congress to extend the USDA’s authority to issue nationwide waivers beyond this school year. Then, on March 31, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-MI, introduced the Support Kids Not Red Tape Act of 2022, which would extend USDA’s authority to issue waivers through September 30, 2023. Cosponsors of the bill include Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-AK; Sen. Susan Collins, R-ME; and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-WV. The bill was referred to committee and currently remains there.
According to Cullipher, the expiration of universal school meals would wreak havoc on school nutrition department finances. At the same time that costs are rising, revenues would fall. Sources of increased costs include inflation, higher labor costs, and having to meet stricter meal pattern requirements. Under North Carolina’s budget, the minimum wage for all non-certified school employees, which includes cafeteria workers, will increase to $15 on July 1, 2022.
The waivers expiring would also remove flexibilities when it comes to meeting meal pattern requirements. Right now, if a product isn’t available due to supply chain disruptions, Cullipher has more flexibility to substitute alternative items than she would without these waivers. A March survey from the USDA found that 92% of school food authorities reported experiencing challenges due to supply chain disruptions, such as limited product availability and orders arriving with missing or substituted items.
“There’s been a number of times where we can’t get simple things like trays and forks and cups,” Cullipher said.
Sources of decreased revenues include lower per-meal reimbursements under the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Program (as compared to the Seamless Summer Option, the program most child nutrition departments are currently operating under) and an expected decline in participation once some students are asked to pay for the meals they’ve been receiving for free over the last two years.
“There’s no balance there,” she said. “You’re expected to pay these higher wages, and you’re expected to still meet these federal requirements, but you don’t have the money and you don’t have the participation. You have to pay more out than you get in.”
Cullipher also worries that the waivers expiring would further exacerbate hunger, especially for families on the threshold of eligibility that don’t qualify for free- or reduced-price meals and can’t afford to pack a lunch for their child. As of 2019, Feeding America estimated that the child food insecurity rate in Perquimans County was 20% — or one in every five children.
“Taking away the universal meals is just a huge, huge burden,” she said. “When they get here … they’re not going to be able to afford to buy the meals for their children at school. And it may be children that have never experienced hunger before or who have never been told at the lunch line, ‘I’m sorry, you don’t have money on your account, your mom is going to have to send some money with you tomorrow.'”
If the waivers expire at the end of June, school districts across the country would return to collecting applications to verify eligibility for free- and reduced-price meals, a process that is often burdensome and time consuming for both families and child nutrition staff. Cullipher said some families in her district are hesitant to submit applications because they assume they won’t qualify, while others have their applications rejected because their income is just above the qualifying threshold. Serving universal free school meals has eliminated many of the barriers and stigmas associated with this verification process.
“Having the universal feeding has been a level playing ground. No matter what else has gone wrong, when it comes time for them to go to the cafeteria and pick up their lunch, it’s been an even, level playing ground across the board,” said Cullipher. “No matter how rich you are, how poor you are … whatever situations have gone on for the last two years, it’s just been a level ground for every student. And that’s how it should be.”
This year, participation in school meals in Perquimans County has reached record high levels. In March 2019, the district served roughly 18,000 lunches. This March, the district served almost 25,000 lunches. This bucks the national trend, where average daily participation in the National School Lunch Program declined 30% from the 2018-19 to 2020-21 school years.
Cullipher sees her district’s increased participation even amid the uncertainty of the pandemic as a testament to the importance of offering school meals for free to all students, regardless of their income. In her email to Harvey, she concluded with this:
“Universal feeding allowed me to know that no child that attended school went hungry that day. That’s our purpose. That is why we show up every single day, fighting daily uphill battles that get harder each day; our purpose, our why, which is to ensure that no child goes hungry.”