After two years of receiving free school lunches, thousands of Hoosier families will have to pay for them again this fall, including at dozens of eligible Indiana schools that could continue offering free food but chose not to.
Federal child nutrition waivers were offered as a form of COVID-19 relief starting in March 2020, enabling school districts in Indiana and across the country to give out free lunches and breakfasts, regardless of family income. The program ended June 30 after Congress declined to include another waiver extension in its March spending bill.
With a new academic year underway, thousands of students across Indiana will have to go back to applying for free or reduced-price meals as they had before the pandemic.
But not all will qualify.
Free school meals only available to some
Children are automatically eligible for free meals if anyone in their household gets Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) benefits—all supplemental safety net programs funded by the federal government.
Depending on family income, additional children can qualify for free or reduced-price meals, but only if their family submits an application and is approved.
A student in a four-person household can get reduced-price lunch if their family earns less than $51,338 a year, according to the Indiana Department of Education. To get lunch for free, that same student’s family must earn less than $36,075 per year.
More than 508,000 Hoosier children—or about 45% of all students in the state—qualified for free or reduced-price school lunches during the 2021-22 school year, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. It’s not yet known how many students will apply and participate in the program for the current academic year.
Not all qualifying schools take advantage of federal program
At least 500 schools in Indiana will continue providing free meals for all students through a separate U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) program, known as the Community Eligibility Provision, according to the latest state data available.
Still, more than 1,000 schools that the state education department deemed eligible are not taking advantage of the federal meal servicing program that allows schools with high poverty rates to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students, regardless of their economic status.
Families are not required to submit an application for the community provision like they would for the free and reduced meals program. That guarantees free breakfast and lunch for any student at a participating school.
Indianapolis Public Schools, as well as the surrounding Perry, Warren and Wayne school districts, are offering free meals–both lunches and breakfasts–to students through CEP for the 2022-23 school year. Certain MSD of Lawrence Township schools are also participating in CEP to provide free meals.
Thousands of students at other Indianapolis-area schools—in the Decatur, Franklin, Pike, Speedway and Washington school districts—will not automatically get free food, though. Beech Grove City Schools provides free breakfast to all students, but free lunches require an approved free/reduced application.
Emily LeMay, a spokesperson for MSD of Decatur Township, cited recent redistricting when asked by the Indiana Capital Chronicle about why the southwest Indianapolis school district in not participating in CEP.
Franklin Township Community Schools spokesperson Kent Pettet said only that the CEP program “is very complex” and that the district “is currently not considering this program.”
For a school to qualify for the CEP, at least 40% of the individual school’s enrolled population must already participate in another means-tested program or are part of a protected group, such as students experiencing homelessness, in foster care, or migrant students.
Schools that meet the minimum threshold to qualify for the community provision receive reimbursement for 62.5% of meals served, according to federal guidelines. Schools with enrolled populations over 62.5%, where nearly two-thirds of students fall into the above categories, get fully reimbursed for students’ meals.
While any school with an enrolled population of 40% or more can participate, many schools on the lower end of the scale “fear participating” because the level of reimbursement from the federal government would not fully cover the cost of all meals served to students, said Allyson Pérez, a child nutrition policy analyst with the Food Research & Action Center.
Many schools also choose not to participate out of fear that losing data from school meal applications may also result in the loss of Title 1 funding.
Data collected by the national not-for-profit shows 79% of Indiana schools with enrolled populations over 60% participate in CEP, compared to 17% of schools with population’s between 40%-50%, and 61% of schools with or 50%-60% of population.
“While we definitely understand where these fears come from, we have found that there are schools with lower ISPs across the country who are able to successfully implement community eligibility and be financially solvent by implementing strategies,” she said.
School lunch debt concerns rise again
School nutrition advocates argue the end of pandemic-era free meals is likely to mean the return of student meal debt.
That’s because families who qualify for free meals may not realize they have to fill out paperwork again, and then struggle to pay the fees, Pérez said. Other students who ate for free during the pandemic might rack up debt before realizing their families don’t meet the low income thresholds.
“Collecting meal applications is often a challenge for schools and may not always capture all students who are eligible for free or reduced-price meals for a variety of reasons,” Pérez told the Indiana Capital Chronicle. “Schools may have an even harder time collecting applications this school year since there was not such an emphasis on collecting applications during the pandemic … it’s fair to assume that not all students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals will ultimately know to apply for them without robust outreach efforts from school nutrition departments.”
The USDA has largely left decision-making on meal debt policy up to state and local school authorities.
In Indiana, there is no statewide policy for student meal debt, leaving policies to be decided at the district level.
Pettet said Franklin Township schools, which serves roughly 10,500 students, has nearly $9,300 in student lunch debt on record. The debt includes some carry-over from previous years, and some has been accrued since school started last month.
In that district, students can charge an unlimited number of meals, but at the end of each semester, any account with more than $20 in unpaid meals – lunches or breakfast – will be turned over to a collection agency, Pettet said.
If a child in Decatur Township—a district with roughly 6,800 students—has a negative lunch account balance, the student will also be provided a regular meal but accrue another negative lunch account balance. LeMay said student accounts greater than -$75 are reviewed at the end of each school year, and the district’s business office determines if the collection process is warranted.
Indiana does not keep track of statewide school lunch debt. A 2021 report by the Education Data Initiative estimated that Hoosier students owe more than $9 million for unpaid school meals. Advocates predict that number will go up.
“Before the pandemic hit, students would show up in the cafeteria and did not have cash in hand or funds in their account, and those kids had their lunch taken away from them,” Pérez said. “We expect some of those stories to pop right back up with schools charging again for meals.”