No more free lunch for all: National School Lunch Program expires this month, impacting many Summit County families
Julie Koster’s 8-year-old daughter Sydney never liked tuna sandwiches — well, Koster said, it’s not that she never liked them, she had simply never tried them. But one day, Koster said, Sydney came home raving about how much she loved the tuna sandwich she had been served for lunch at school.
At Dillon Valley Elementary School, for the past two years, every student not only had access to free breakfast, but they also had two choices of what to have for lunch every single day, without any extra cost to a family.
However, when students in the Summit School District come back to school in the fall, not everyone will have free breakfast or lunch, and this could have bigger ramifications than just fewer options in the cafeteria.
The National Free Lunch Program that began in March 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic is ending. The program was created as a way for schools to provide food for children who relied on that source of sustenance, even while attending school at home. But come June 30, the program will officially expire, and schools, along with families, will have to revert back to the way things were pre-pandemic.
For the Summit School District, this means many families — as much as 35% of the Summit School District prior to COVID, according to Kara Drake, the Summit School District chief financial officer, will have to re-apply to be a part of the free and reduced school lunch program.
Post-pandemic cost increases
Though the free and reduced lunch program is a helpful resource for many families, Brianne Snow, the executive director of the Family & Intercultural Resource Center, said she’s worried about the families that make too much money to fit within the financial requirements but not enough to comfortably feed and provide for their families.
“They make, you know, a decent wage. But the cost of living up here is so tough,” Snow said, “They’re going to have a hard time and there’s not many options for them.”
Koster lives with her husband, her daughter Sydney, and her 3-year-old son Bodhi in Frisco, and she said she has seen these costly effects.
“I think groceries and gas is definitely where we’re seeing it the most,” Koster said.
A four-person household has to have an income of only $29,939 for free lunch and $42,606 for reduced lunch, according to the Colorado Department of Education’s Income Eligibility Guidelines for the 2022 to 2023 school year. That leaves a $60,000 to $70,000 gap between families that can receive benefits and families that can still comfortably put food on the table.
“There is a huge disparity between our local workforce and people that are able to choose to live here as a second homeowner or a remote worker or whatever that looks like for them,” Snow said. “We see, at (the resource center), people that are really struggling. They’re making $40,000 a year for their entire family.”
Snow sees this as a huge problem for Summit County.
“We live in one of the most beautiful communities in the world, in my opinion, and without our workforce, there’s no reason to come here,” Snow said. “People are what makes this the best place to be. Without the people, we have nothing.”
In 2018, the University of Washington Center for Women’s Welfare collected numbers for all counties in Colorado to show the “self-sufficiency standard” for a number of different kinds of households. This outlines the income necessary for working families to meet a standard that would provide an adequate quality of life.
Using this data, collected pre-pandemic in 2018, a family of two adults with two school-aged children would have to make at least $76,000 a year to meet the self-sufficiency standard of Summit County. This number is sure to have gone up post-pandemic, based on rising inflation. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in May of 2018, the U.S. inflation rate was 2.8%. In May this year, it leaped to 8.6%.
Snow estimated that to currently to live in Summit County and be a self-sufficient family of four “you probably need to make $110,000.”
During the week of June 6, Snow said they had more people attend the resource center’s Tuesday food market than had ever attended before, even during the height of the pandemic. Three hundred households showed up for support.
“Prior to the pandemic, a really big day would have been 25 people,” she said. “People are really really struggling.”
Drake said they would like to see as many families as possible sign up for the state’s free and reduced lunch programs. Not only does it provide breakfast and lunch, but it also helps with extra costs like school supplies. It can even open doors to other community programs that families can participate in based on their free and reduced status.
The resource center also holds free food markets every week. The schedule and addresses can be found under the “Food & Thrift” tab on the family center’s website, at SummitFIRC.org.
There are no income qualifications, everyone is welcome.
“You are not taking away from anyone else,” Snow said.
Snow also said that the food is not just canned and dry goods — 80% of the food they have available is fresh.
Drake said the applications for the free and reduced lunch will be sent out before the school year, and the school district wants as many families as possible to know that the free program is ending.
“It’s probably going to come to a surprise to a lot of folks or families that rely on it,” Snow said.
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