Free and reduced cost lunches will still be available

Free and reduced cost lunches will still be available

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Parents of students entering classes this fall may be alarmed to learn the USDA will no longer fund free lunches for all students during the 2022-23 school year. However, the key words to remember are “for all.”

Free and reduced cost lunches will still be available as they have been in the past; the program is merely returning to the same qualification requirements in effect before the COVID-19 pandemic opened the program to all students.

“Over the last two years,” said Nathan Mushrush, food services director at New Philadelphia City Schools, “you didn’t have to fill out an application to get a free or reduced cost lunch at school. Now you will have to fill out an application form and meet qualifications, just as in 2019.”

Angie Welch, who holds the same position with Dover City Schools, said the summer free food programs already in place are unaffected by the changes. “For the school year, you’ll need to get an application submitted. It’s not really a change in how the school lunch program is carried out. It’s just a return to the norms that were in place before 2020.”

Full information about this year’s program has not yet been released by the USDA, Mushrush said. “Though you can apply now. That process is underway.”

Applications were accepted beginning July 1 and are available at www.payschoolscentral.com.

“We prefer that students sign up before the school year begins,” Welch said. “But student applications will be accepted after that.”

All the school lunches adhere to USDA nutritional guidelines, though this may become more difficult if availability of certain products remains tight, Mushrush said. “A number of companies downsized and have concentrated on a smaller number of products. We are watching that situation, though all of the lunches will be nutritious and healthy.”

Mushrush said while many schools in the state have raised the cost of school lunches for the upcoming year, the New Philadelphia district opted not to do so. “The district felt that this is not the proper time to increase costs for families.”

While the free and reduced cost school lunch program for the upcoming school year will not be materially different from that of 2019, “it will certainly affect kids who ate their lunches for free the last two years,” Welch said. “The program was open to all students in 2020, 2021 and 2022, but that is no longer the case, and some students will find they no longer qualify for the program. Families should be aware of this and get their applications completed so they know what to expect.”

Another change announced by the USDA in January is a higher rate of reimbursement for schools. According to the USDA, “This adjustment is well-timed to ensure the purchasing power of schools keeps pace with the cost of living. Schools receiving these reimbursement rates can stretch their operating budgets further during these tough times while giving families fewer meal expenses to worry about each school day.”

The agency said new rates of reimbursement for participating schools will be 22% higher than in pre-COVID-19 circumstances. While not all students will be offered a free lunch for the 2022-23 school year, those who qualify will be assured of a nutritious meal each day.

Welch said roughly 30% of students at Dover Schools normally receive a free or reduced cost lunch.

The USDA website is at www.usda.gov.