Two years ago, at the onset of the pandemic, Congress passed a federal waiver program that allowed all U.S. students to eat school meals for free—no questions asked. Families who are eligible for free or reduced school means don’t apply for the program, for myriad reasons, and some families hover right above the income requirements to qualify but need and deserve the support. For the last two years, this program evened the playing field in the breakfast and lunch line. Educators and families across Connecticut and the country loved this program.
But last week, on June 30th, Congress decided not to extend this program and it was terminated immediately. This means families who are fighting to stay afloat financially this summer have an uphill battle heading into the upcoming school year.
Filling in the Blanks partners closely with school district personnel and social workers across the state to run our weekend meal distribution program, so we asked some of these wonderful partners to share their thoughts on the meal waiver program ending. What does this really mean for our kids and their peers?
Reflections From Connecticut Educators:
“The ending of the school meal waiver program has caused tremendous uncertainty. I recall several situations (prior to the meal waiver program) where children who were only eligible for reduced priced meals did not have the adequate funds in their school meal account to purchase lunch, causing them to feel embarrassed, disappointed, and worse—hungry. The waiver allowed families to have a peace of mind knowing their children would receive a healthy and balanced meal each day they were in our school’s care. It is both heartbreaking and terrifying to think that this is coming to an end.” —Emily Khoshaboo, Social Worker, Greenwich Public Schools
“The school meal waiver program leveled the playing field for students during breakfast and lunch. There has been no worry of filling out paperwork for families scared due to immigration status, there has been no socioeconomic divide between students who are able to bring lunch from home versus students who receive free/reduced meals. It has made it so that the vast majority of students elect to have breakfast and lunch provided by the school cafeteria. I am scared that by this waiver ending, a large portion of our students will not access, or have access, to two meals a day.” —Lauren Giannattasio, Social Worker, Rogers School
"The school meal waiver program ending in June will have a direct deleterious impact on the students who now receive free meals through the schools. Many families don't take the initiative to apply for free meals for a variety of reasons and they are unable to keep up with the costs of increased grocery bills. have heard of many children sharing one piece of pizza for dinner with their siblings, and these children come to school very hungry—eager for their free breakfasts. Parents who are ashamed to ask for handouts are so grateful for the free meals at school. We can't expect kids to flourish in school if they are too hungry to focus on learning."
“Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, students at Norwalk Public Schools have been able to enjoy free meals thanks to nationwide waivers. Now that these waivers have expired, Norwalk and schools across the country on the National School Lunch Program must return to charging for breakfast and lunch and can only offer free or reduced-priced meals to students who qualify for those benefits. School meals continue to be some of the healthiest meal options for kids and are an important part of the learning day. Our goal is to continue to support all students and families by ensuring those who need free meals at school continue to receive them. After July 1st, families will have the opportunity to complete an application for free or reduced-price meals for school year 2022-2023. While there is still time for new flexibilities to be granted for the upcoming school year, the team at Norwalk is hard at work preparing for all possible outcomes in our unwavering commitment to serve up happy and healthy to every student, every day.”—Angela Valentin, Resident District Manager, Chartwells
What we can all do to help:
First, we encourage all families to contact your kids’ school and find out whether you qualify for National Free or Reduced Lunch. If so, please apply! Most applications are currently open for the upcoming school year. With inflation and food prices so high and continuing to rise, there is no shame in receiving this assistance for your child or children. Many families need financial support right now, for a million different reasons, and we’re all in this together.
Second, if you’re in a position to support Filling in the Blanks financially and help neighboring families, we will continue ramping up our programming to meet the increased demand.
The biggest thing you can do to help now is contribute monthly to Filling in the Blanks. Reliable, ongoing donations allow us to serve more kids in more areas of the state, every single weekend. It costs $25/month to fund all of a child’s weekend meals, all year round. One-time donations are also greatly appreciated.
“The Filling in the Blanks meal program has been an extra blessing to most families that we serve as we know how hard times have become with prices being inflated since the pandemic. People are just trying to get through their daily struggles and this package of food helps most families more than you know. The packages are filled with some pretty decent portions and necessities that satisfy both parent and child. There are a few goodies in the bags that my students particularly look forward to receiving.” —Monica Wilson, Norwalk Housing Authority
“Filling in the Blanks is an invaluable resource for families at Westover Elementary School. Children ask me on a regular basis, “When do we get the Backpack Program?!” (As it is known by the kids.) They are so excited when Fridays come and they receive their bag of food. I hear from many families how important this extra food is for families who are struggling mightily to stay afloat. When the kindergarten students walk a bit slower to the bus, weighed down by a heavy bag of food, I am certain that this extra bit of food is essential for our families.” —Mich West, LCSW, Westover Elementary School
The abrupt end of the federal school meal waivers is a huge hurdle, but we’re not going anywhere. We will continue supplying nutritious weekend meals to as many families as we possibly can—and we’re steadily growing thanks to your support.