Districts weighing options as universal free meal waiver expires

UNIONTOWN, Pa. — Local school districts are reviewing their options as the federal program that provided universal free school meals for all students has expired.

Since March 2020, every public school student had been eligible to receive a breakfast and lunch at no charge, after Congress authorized the United States Department of Agriculture to issue a waiver amid the pandemic.

But as we approach the 2022-2023 school year, the waiver has expired, yet inflation remains sky-high.

“We’ll do the best we can to help,” said Dr. Jesse Wallace, superintendent of the Laurel Highlands School District in Uniontown.

Wallace told Channel 11 that the district is reviewing all options for students, including taking advantage of any other waiver that may surface.

He also said that the district is trying to keep meal prices as low as possible, but with inflation and supply chain issues, that may prove challenging.

The expiration of the federal waiver means that about 1,300 kids — close to half the student body — will have to resume paying for meals.

Others, he told us, are eligible for the Free and Reduced program. This year’s eligibility guidelines can be found here: https://www.media.pa.gov/pages/education-details.aspx?newsid=1303

But with inflation increasing prices for so many items, ineligible families may still feel financially stretched.

“That’s just the straw that will break the camel’s back, you have some families that ... they’re right on the brink of survival, and with the elevated costs and the issues with supply and demand, it’s going to be an even heavier weight to lift,” Wallace told us.

Meantime, Channel 11 has learned that some other districts within our region will still be able to provide universal free meals to all students for the time being, through a separate USDA program called the Community Eligibility Program (CEP).

CEP is available for school districts in low-income areas. Districts can qualify in four-year intervals.

The Brownsville Area School District was just renewed for CEP, enabling students to eat for free for at least the next four years.

“For a district like us, this is invaluable, because a lot of our children want to not be shamed when they get to the lunch line, not feel badly that they have to get a free lunch,” said Brownsville Superintendent Dr. Keith Hartbauer. “When everyone’s treated the same, it takes those pressures off the student.”

Chuck Brown, food service manager for the Uniontown Area School District, which is also benefiting from CEP for at least another year, made the same point.

“Some kids don’t want other kids to know they’re eating for free, so they’ll stay away from the cafeteria,” he said. “But, now that everyone’s on the same playing field, our numbers go up.”

CEP also eliminates the need for low-income families to submit paperwork to see if their child qualifies for the Free and Reduced program.

“If a parent doesn’t feel like filling that out, then the student doesn’t get to participate in that program, and then they can go hungry,” Hartbauer said.

“It makes a huge difference for families,” said Amy Keeler, Brownsville’s Director of Food Services. “No matter how great the curriculum, the buildings, the staff, a hungry child cannot learn when their stomach is rumbling and they’re worried about where their next meal is going to come from.”

Brown added, “a school lunch is the only meal some kids get, so it’s a benefit for us to be able to reach out to more kids and provide nutritious breakfasts and lunches.”

Channel 11 spoke with several families enjoying free lunches during Brownsville’s summer meal distribution.

Mom Candy Foster told us “it helps out a lot.”

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