22 August 2022 | Education Economic Security

After the 'Hungriest Summer,' Kansas Kids Will Return to School without the Free Meals Provided over the Last Two Years

Erin Melton | August 22, 2022

Summer is the hungriest time of year for school-aged children. School breakfasts and lunches are not served during those three months, so some kids don’t get the nutrition they need to continue to learn and grow. Sadly, the hunger could continue as school meals will not be as accessible as they have been for the last two years when free school meals were available to all students. Families who do not meet the income requirements for free meals will have to return to paying the reduced or full price, right as the cost of food is the highest it has been in decades. 

Governed by the federal Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization (CNR) Act, child nutrition and snack programs administered in schools, child care centers, and after school programs serve millions of low-income children each day. In addition to small grants, support activities, and school food nutrition standards, the child nutrition programs typically included are:

  • National School Lunch Program (NSLP) — a program in public and nonprofit private schools to provide low- or no-cost school lunches. Eligibility is determined by participation in certain assistance programs, status as a homeless, migrant, or foster child, participation in the Head Start program, or household income at or below 130 percent federal poverty for free meals and between 130 and 185 percent for reduced price meals.
  • School Breakfast Program (SBP) — a program in public and nonprofit private schools, and residential child care programs. Eligibility requirements are the same as those for the NSLP.
  • Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) — a program that reimburses nutritious meals and snacks for eligible children and adults in child care centers, day care homes, adult day care centers, certain afterschool programs, and emergency shelters. Eligibility requirements depend on the category of the site but are usually based on the percentage of individuals served who are eligible for free or reduced-price meals or the site’s location in a low-income area.
  • Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) — a program that reimburses participating sites to serve free healthy meals during the summer months when school is out. Eligibility is based on the site’s location in a low-income area.
  • Special Milk Program (SMP) — a program that provides milk for children in schools, child care centers, and other eligible sites that do not already participate in other federal child nutrition programs. Depending on how the site chooses to administer the program, milk may be free or for purchase.

The most recent CNR is the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Some of that law’s authorities expired in 2015, but most operations have remained funded by inclusion in the federal government’s annual budget bills. CNR programs have always been important sources of nutrition for Kansas kids. As inflated food costs coincided with the end of pandemic-issued family supports, emergency food organizations saw the hungriest summer in recent history.

Child Nutrition and Child Hunger in Kansas

In 2021, 46.1 percent of kids in Kansas schools qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, not including the children whose families are income eligible but did not apply. And while access to free and reduced-price lunch is crucial, it is not doing enough to get Kansas kids all the nutrition they need. The most recent data shows that Kansas’ school meal debt totals $4.45 million. In 2019, more than 17 percent of children in Kansas lived in households that lacked consistent access to enough nutritious food for all household members. 

For these children, and many others whose families are just above the income cut off or whose parents are working multiple jobs and have a lowered capacity to cook, school meals and summer meal options are crucial.

Food insecurity hinders children’s ability to develop the social, emotional, and behavioral skills they need to thrive. We know that children who are not coming to class hungry are better able to focus during tests and in the classroom and are less likely to display distracted, uncontrolled, or socially withdrawn behavior. In contrast, children who eat breakfast and lunch at school get up to half of their daily calories through those meals, and school meals tend to provide more fruits, vegetables, and milk.

Without summer food programs, kids who rely on school breakfasts and lunches could struggle to eat for up to 90 days. Free and reduced-price school meals reduce food insecurity for participating children and their families, and nutrition programs available in the summer months are particularly critical. In fiscal year 2021, the SFSP provided more than 21 million breakfasts and almost 39 million lunches to Kansas kids who may have had to go without if it weren’t for the program.

This year, Kansas kids are returning to school without the programs to combat hunger they have had since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Free meals available to all students with no application needed during the pandemic significantly eases the stigma around needing free or reduced-priced school meals, the embarrassment and punishment that comes with school meal debt, and the daily logistical burden on school nutrition staff.

In addition to the soaring price of food (up 10.4 percent from last summer) and the looming end of pandemic-related food assistance flexibilities, parents who have not had to fill out school meal applications for two years will now have to be prompted to do so. Those who cannot be reached — a particular risk for families with language barriers or who have moved — will face a sudden loss of up to two meals each weekday for their children.

Federal Legislation Has Been Introduced, but Hungry Kids Are Going Back to School Now

In June, Congress passed the Keep Kids Fed Act, which helped summer food service providers keep children fed through the summer months and very slightly increased school meal reimbursements. But this will not stop the hunger cliff that families will face when they start the school year without free healthy school meals.

In July, U.S. House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Robert C. Scott introduced the Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act, a CNR that would update the 2010 legislation and ensure that more children have access to meals year-round. In addition to setting school nutrition standards and updating the WIC program, the Act would expand the Community Eligibility Provision and Direct Certification for school breakfast and lunch, ensuring more students have the nutrition they need to learn and grow while also easing administrative burden for schools, school districts, and families. But Congress has not yet acted on this CNR as kids are returning to class.

As Kansas kids return to school without the certainty of breakfast and lunch, we must do more to ensure that all children in our state have the nutrition they need to thrive. If passed, the Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act would be a tremendous help to addressing the food insecurity crisis across the country. However, the bill is not yet final and it's likely to change after the Senate's August recess and the midterm elections in November. In any case, this piece of federal legislation is not helping hungry kids going back to school right now. 

We must do more at the state level. Individuals can start by educating themselves and their networks about the importance of school meals and child nutrition programs, and by making sure your local, state, and federal elected officials know that you want school meals to be available for all Kansas kids. KAC and our partners will continue to advocate for the programs and policy changes that will keep Kansas kids fed.

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