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Educators concerned as families foot school lunch bill for 1st time in 2 years

Educators voice concern over pandemic-era lunch waivers ending
Posted at 6:33 AM, Sep 12, 2022

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — This school year, families across the Kansas City metro are having to pay for their student's lunch after the federal government’s free meal waiver ended this summer.

However, inflation continues to trickle down, impacting families and school districts who are also facing rising costs.

"I worry a lot about the free lunch program ending," said Michelle Gibson, social worker at Center Academy for Success. "I don't feel that families should have to choose between paying for their electric bill and sending a student with money for lunch at school."

The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education implemented the free lunch waivers across the state and say their absence will be noticed by Missouri families who don't qualify for free or reduced lunch.

"It's an ongoing theme to help prevent food insecurity, but yes it might be heightened for some of these families," said Barbara Shaw, Coordinator for the Food Nutrition Services Program.

It's not just families that are dealing with the impacts of the local economy.

Center School District gets all of their meals through Sodexo USA. The food services company reported double digit year over year increases on items like beverages, dairy, cereals and baked goods. To offset costs, cash lunch prices increased by 10 cents, but that increase was based on trends seen in May.

"Our contract is through the USDA and DESE. The only way we can increase our prices are through the annual renewal process. The maximum amount allowed per contact is determined by the May Food Away from Home % increase which was 7.4%," Sodexo said in a statement to KSHB 41 News. "That was applied to our current fixed price contract for the 2022-23 school year. That will not be enough to off-set these trends as our analysts anticipate this continuing for the next 12 to 18 months."

Shaw says some districts are inclined to increase their lunch prices to ensure they have enough revenue to be able to purchase the food and keep their programs operating.

This year, the Biden Administration signed the 'Keep Feds Act', which helps increase the reimbursement rate for school meals to offset inflation costs. Shaw says the state is also working closely with school districts to find additional resources for families and is pushing for families to apply for free and reduced lunch.

Across the Center School District, 67% of families qualified for the program this year.

Eligibility varies depending on the size of your family. The federal government sets eligibility requirements for the program, but it's the families that miss the cut-off Gibson is worried about.

“When you're really hungry...It's hard to focus, it's hard to sit still, you may have a headache or someone may be upset. It affects your mind and your body which can affect your behavior," Gibson said.

There are resources families can take advantage of. The YMCA of Greater Kansas City hosts multiple mobile food pantry drives at least once a month. It also has a food pantry available inside its North Kansas City location and a Kids Cafe where any child under 18 can come in and get a free meal after 3:30 p.m.. The Y estimates about 200 kids are fed every week through their program.

"We want to provide healthy nutritious meals for that demographic, especially because all of the things that our youth are for our future, for our communities, everything that's good in our society, we want to be there to take care of that," said Jeff Lee, North Kansas CIty YMCA Program Director.