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Pandemic Relief Expiring Means Northwest Children Will Miss Healthy School Meals

Lauren Paterson
Schools will no longer be able to offer free lunch to many students once a federal program expires. Pictured, hot lunch served in the Moscow, Idaho School District.

Without action from Congress, waivers that provided free school meals for children across the country will end this summer.

Kendra Grove is a student nutrition supervisor for the Moscow School District.

“That’s my favorite part about this business, is watching the kids eat good food,” Grove said, “And I just don’t want kids, or parents to struggle paying for it.”

She was hoping the federal government would decide to fund public school meals on a national level, or at least expand them for one more year.

Now, without action from Congress, the waivers granting increased federal funding and flexibility for school meals will expire on June 30, 2022.

Shelley McGuire is a maternal infant child nutritionist at University of Idaho.

“We do know that these school breakfast and lunch programs have become absolutely critical for child nutrition in the United States,” McGuire said, “They’re really part of the fabric of how kids are fed.

McGuire said this is especially true for low income families, who have to stretch every dollar.

On the other side of town, single mom Irina lives with her two kids. We’re only using their first names to protect their identity.

“It’s hard enough to keep a stocked kitchen with two growing kids,” she said. “I mean, just in a week, we spent over $100 at least on groceries.”

Irina is happy about the expanded meal programs at school. So is her nine-year-old son Dean, who eats hot lunch every day.

“For example, I had a bean burritos today,” he said, “Occasionally they give out the tasty Jell-O, or very rarely, very, very rarely pudding.”

If he could change one thing about school meals,

“You could have more than one ketchup packet. You could take two!”

One packet for his hamburger, and one for his fries.

Lauren Paterson
Families, such as Irina, and her son Dean of Moscow, Idaho, say they'll struggle if free meals are no longer available at public schools.

Since Irina works full time, she says not having to make breakfast and lunch every day frees up time for other tasks, such as doing laundry and keeping up with her kids.

But that will change if the expanded lunch program expires. Even Dean understands how that will impact the family budget if his mom has to pay for meals.

“We would have less extra money to spend on like entertainment and food at home,” he said.

Washington State families are facing the same issues.

Leanne Eko is the Executive Director of Child Nutrition Services at the Office of Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction. Eko was at a conference recently where they detailed the many issues facing nutrition programs in the state.

“I walked away from the conference thinking ugh…It’s going to be another tough year,” Eko said.

Supply chain issues, staffing shortages, and confusing budget rules all contribute to the chaos facing schools across the Pacific Northwest.

“People in rural communities are being hurt by this. But they don’t know that there is a solution,” said Jillien Meyer with NO Kid Hungry Partnership. “They don’t know they could have summer meal sites before COVID because they never had them.”

Meyer says most kids get their best nutrition from school meals.

“And now they are going get yanked away,” Meyer said. “It’s become a red versus blue, city versus suburban and urban. When in reality, these hungry kids are everywhere.”

McGuire says the problem is complex because now, families are used to the meals and the money they had budgeted for lunch is now freed up for other things like clothes or school supplies. McGuire worries the government is pulling back before families are fully recovered from COVID.

“You can kind of look at this as, we’re just trying to get back to normal,” McGuire said. “You know, the question is, are we that close to normal yet? What’s going to happen to child nutrient intake when we pull back?”

McGuire says it’s taking a gamble at a particularly delicate time in children’s lives. Childhood is the time where we know nutrition impacts their current behavior, their growth, and their development.

States like California and Maine aren’t waiting for a federal decision on extending the free lunch program. They’ve decided to fund school meals for all their students. So far, Washington and Idaho don’t have plans to go that far.