No more free meals for all students as USDA ends COVID relief

Families Brace For Changes To Pandemic Era Free School Meals
Lisa Rathke - staff, AP

Students get lunch of homemade pizza and caesar salad at the Albert D. Lawton Intermediate School, in Essex Junction, Vt., Thursday, June 9, 2022. The pandemic-era federal aid that made school meals available for free to all public school students — regardless of family income levels — is ending, raising fears about the effects in the upcoming school year for families already struggling with rising food and fuel costs.

MADISON, Wis. — Parents will once again have to apply for free or reduced-price student meals ahead of the ’22/’23 school year.  The federal program through the USDA has ended the COVID relief program that provided free meals to students.

Schools had some flexibility during COVID so they could serve all kids free meals.  Some of those options expired, so many schools can’t serve all meals free anymore. Instead, families will do what they did before COVID.  Schools will take applications and use family income to qualify kids for free, reduced-price, or paid meals.

Some schools use a program called the “Community Eligibility Provision” that helps them serve all meals free. Contact your local school to see if they are part of that program,” the USDA says on its website.

Meantime, the USDA has released new income eligibility guidelines to qualify for the free or reduced-price meal program for the ’22/’23 school year.  For the first time under the program, a family of four can make over $50,000 a year a qualify for reduced-price meals.  A family of four now qualifies for reduced meals if the household’s annual income is between $36,075 and $51,338.

If families make less than $36,075 they qualify for free meals.  The new eligibility guidelines for a family of four rose 4.7% this year as inflation rose 9%.  A family of five that makes under $60,070 now qualifies for the program.

The state’s participating public and private schools and daycares typically provide applications for free and reduced-price school meals during registration and in the beginning weeks of the school year. However, applications may be submitted at any time.

Only one application is required per household,” the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction said in a new release this week.

Families can contact their school district to apply.  As of Friday morning, the link to apply online with the Madison Metropolitan School District was not working.