Universal free meals at Garfield Re-2 discontinued
Universal free meals for students at schools, a service implemented at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, has ended at Garfield School District Re-2.
Director of Nutrition Services Mary McPhee told the Re-2 board on June 8 that starting in the fall, students will either pay for breakfasts and lunches or their families can apply for free or reduced meals.
Parents and families are encouraged to apply for free-and-reduced-meal options, including getting on the district’s Meal Monkey plan — a service that offers free meals to children 18 years or younger Monday through Thursday, June 6 through Aug. 4.
Free-and-reduced meal application forms are available through the district, McPhee said.
“We’re going to push the free-and-reduced application really hard,” McPhee said.
Prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Universal School Meals Program offered free meals to all students regardless of income. The waivers were originally part of former President Donald Trump’s first COVID-19 aid package.
It is set to expire June 30. As of October 2021, the free-and-reduced student population is about 36%, according to the district.
Congress could have extended the universal meals program but failed to act, prompting school districts across the country — including Re-2 — to revert back to former free-and-reduced lunch options.
“We should have kept free lunches now until infinity,” board member Britton Fletchall said.
Garfield Re-2 had previously adjusted meal rates for the 2017-18 school year. The increase meant elementary students pay $2.25 per breakfast and $3 per lunch, while middle and high school students paid $3 per meal. Adults pay $3 per breakfast, $4.25 per lunch.
The district’s previous system for students not on free-and-reduced meal plans meant they couldn’t charge a breakfast. When they reached three lunches without charge, further lunches were denied, McPhee said.
But in an effort to stymie “lunch shaming,” the school board in 2017-18 decided all children would be fed regardless of financial situations, McPhee said.
“We were very happy to do that so every child got the same meals regardless if they had money in their account or not,” she said.
The district headed into the COVID-19 pandemic nearly $20,000 in meal debt — a cost eventually paid for by the district and private donors, McPhee said.
“The good news is, everyone starts from zero,” she said. “We’re in no debt right now.”
Re-2 board members discussed what the district would actually enforce when students don’t secure free-and-reduced meal plans. The district could continue to incur the debt itself or cut off students after a certain number of free meals and instead offer cold sandwiches. Payment plans were also suggested.
“I would hate to have a student with an exorbitant amount of debt and tell them we can’t feed them,” board member Jason Shoup said.
But the board ultimately agreed they would not force students to eat sandwiches if they can’t afford warm meals.
McPhee said payments for meals can be made through a number of means, including credit cards at the school secretary and nutrition offices. Payments can also be made through the district’s E-Funds option found at https://www.garfieldre2.net/our_district/food_nutrition/e-funds.
Meanwhile, the board agreed to try and distribute information regarding free-and-reduced lunch applications as quickly and widely as possible. The district begins to incur meal debt starting Aug. 15.
“We served thousands and thousands more meals with universal free,” McPhee said. “We are very aware that participation is going to go down.”
The Meal Monkey Plan is offered by Garfield School District Re-2 and LIFT-UP. It serves free on-site lunch to children 18 years old and younger. It runs Monday through Thursday, June 6 through Aug. 4.
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