WATAUGA — Watauga County Schools is preparing for a school year where students will no longer have access to free breakfast and lunch.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States Department of Agriculture passed waivers nationwide that allowed schools to serve breakfast and lunch to students without collecting payment. That waiver expires on June 30, meaning parents will have to again apply for free or reduced lunch for their children.
“It is very disappointing that school meals for children are a casualty of Washington politics,” WCS Superintendent Scott Elliott said in a statement. “Of all the things the federal government has spent money on over the last two years, nothing has been more beneficial to our working families than free school meals. If our leaders want to help our families through these difficult times, providing meals to children is an easy way to give people some relief.”
During the two years that students could receive free lunch, WCS saw a large increase in the amount of meals they served. Between August and March in 2019-20 — pre-COVID — the school system served 90,276 breakfast meals and 236,418 lunches.
During that same time period during this past school year — while the waivers were still active — WCS served 157,215 breakfast meals and 325,141 lunches, which is a 74% and 37.5% increase, respectively.
“We immediately saw an increase in the students who were eating breakfast and lunch at school,” Elliott said. “As the cost of fuel and most everything else increased through the spring, we saw more and more children eating free meals at school who normally would have either paid full price or brought food from home. I suspect that demand for school meals will only increase through the fall as families struggle to make ends meet.”
According to the school system, free and reduced meals are based on two criteria: family income and household size. Prior to COVID-19, Watauga hovered around 34% across the district for families who applied for and were eligible for free and reduced meals. When meals became free for students, not as many families completed the applications as had in the past and the eligibility was approximately 24% last year.
“We know that a significant number of our students live in poverty or come from homes where making ends meet is getting more difficult,” Elliott said. “We also know that it is difficult to do much of anything, especially learn, when someone is hungry. Being able to have a healthy breakfast and lunch at school is important for children’s overall wellbeing.”
According to the Census Bureau, 15.8% of the the population in Watauga County lives in poverty, however, the Census states that small counties with a large university with presence of college students who live off campus raise a community’s poverty rates.
“If the federal government cannot find the will to continue providing meals, then we will work hard to get every eligible family signed up for the free and reduced program,” Elliott said. “Once meals became free, many people stopped filling out the applications for free lunch. We will need every family to fill out the paperwork this time.”
WCS School Nutrition Director Monica Bolick said she feels like some children will fall through the cracks when free lunches go away.
“I think it’s going to impact how many students are eating,” Bolick said. “Our participation is really going up. It’s going to impact students and parents with them having to pay, once again, for meals when they haven’t had to do that. And I think we’re going to see our participation decline because of the burden of having to pay for those meals again.”
Information on how to apply for free and reduced lunch through Watauga County Schools can be found at bit.ly/3zRqtsg.
Yolanda Adams, the family resource coordinator for WCS, said in a statement that while people may think food insecurity happens in specific households, it really happens more than people know.
“Food insecurity impacts the entire family at a level beyond hunger. It affects the performance and growth of minors,” Adams said. “Many people don’t know that for many of our students in WCS, the only guaranteed meal during the year is what the children receive during school days. During the weekends and holidays, that concern for parents is heightened by the knowledge that there will not be a guaranteed meal on the table for their children.”
Adams said food insecurity is one of the reasons the partnership with the Hunger and Health Coalition is so important.
The Hunger and Health Coalition’s mission is to relieve poverty and hunger in a compassionate manner for families and individuals who are experiencing economic hardship and food shortages. Assistance to families may include food, medicine, wood and referrals to other community resources, according to the organization.
The organization said in a statement that it is “disheartened” at the decision to end the child nutrition waivers.
“We are energized to continue feeding our most vulnerable neighbors, including children,” the organization stated. “This decision only amplifies our work and our current programs including the Backpack Program, which offers food to children over the weekends and our food services programs, that have helped to distribute over 700,000 pounds last year to families in need.”
The organization said getting involved with their mission is the “easiest” way community members could help to lessen the burden of governmental decisions like the ending of the waivers. More information on how to volunteer with the Hunger and Health Coalition can be found at www.hungerandhealthcoalition.com/home.
The waivers ending is not the only issue the school system is facing and preparing for. Elliott said the school system is working hard to keep meal prices as low as possible, but all of the system’s commodity and grocery vendors have canceled their contracts because they could no longer honor their prices.
“The new prices we are seeing have increases of 50% or higher on many food items compared to what we were paying a year ago,” Elliott said. “The cost of everything has gone up, including the food items, kitchen supplies, and of course the fuel for our deliveries. We will do everything possible to keep the cost of a school meal as affordable as possible.”