On Friday afternoon, Tiffany Esposito, the kitchen manager at Oshana Elementary School in Plantsville, oversaw the first lunch wave — first and second grade students.
Students who didn’t bring a lunch from home that day could grab the meal Esposito and her staff were serving: baked popcorn chicken with rice pilaf, steamed broccoli and carrots, a cup of pineapple chunks, with an eight-ounce carton of 1% milk — plain or chocolate. The cost: free.
Over the past two years, with schools and families facing the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which manages the National School Lunch Program, allowed local school districts to offer universal free meal programs, regardless of families’ income.
Roughly a quarter of the more than 6,200 students in Southington Public Schools, including those at Oshana, qualify for free or reduced lunch. The federal waivers allowed the school district and others — Cheshire, Wallingford and Berlin among them — to offer free breakfast and lunch to all students.
But the program is slated to end June 30.
Local school nutrition directors have already had to contend with an array of challenges. First it was reverting from in-person meal service to curbside pickup. Then it was adjusting to new cleaning and social distancing protocols prompted by the pandemic. On top of that, directors have faced ongoing supply chain challenges and staffing shortages.
Now the cost of food and the most basic materials, like paper and utensils, has increased due to inflation.
One thing families have been able to count on is their schools providing meals free of charge.
“I do think it made a difference to parents, in all honesty. In the beginning they weren’t quite sure what to do with it,” Esposito said, explaining families’ initial skepticism.
Esposito believes the waivers should continue.
Nya Welinsky, the School Food Service Director for the Southington Public Schools, agreed. An increase in volume
The school district currently serves somewhere between 4,500 to 5,000 meals a day, Welinsky estimated. Southington High School alone serves at least 1,100 meals a day.
“We have really seen the volume increase through these waivers,” Welinsky said. “So we’re really hoping that the nutrition waivers can be extended.”
The director said the universal meal concept is similar to students knowing they always have a seat on the bus.
“There’s a meal for them in schools, if for whatever reason they need it,” Welinsky said.
The district has seen more families participate and accept the free meals. As a result, the number of meals served daily has increased.
Welinsky and other nutrition directors worry that unless the waivers are extended, families and their programs could face new financial burdens in the upcoming school year.
So the district is wary of advertising whether there will be a cost for meals next school year.
Welinsky said even a year into the free meal program, families who were uncertain about it would contact her office with questions.
“‘Are you sure I’m not going to get a bill? Are you sure it’s free,’” Welinsky said of the questions she fielded. “So it took a while for the community to really grasp the idea that it was free and available to everyone. So now, to not really know ... to not be able to truly advertise is definitely a hindrance right now for planning.”
The rising cost of food is also a challenge for planning. For example, a portion of USDA-approved applesauce has doubled in cost, from $0.20 to $0.40, Welinsky explained.
In addition to ensuring students are equitably fed, the waivers have enabled directors like Welinsky to keep their nutrition programs financially viable because they come with increased federal reimbursements. Planning amid uncertainty
Food service directors begin planning and placing orders for the upcoming school year as early as six to seven months in advance. The uncertainty has meant directors needed to begin placing orders without knowing what their future bottom lines will be.
The national nonprofit School Nutrition Association earlier this year released a position paper urging that the waivers continue, describing the ongoing challenges as “already wreaking havoc.”
“To plan for next school year, school nutrition programs and their suppliers urgently need the assurance of waiver extensions,” the paper stated.
The SNA also noted ongoing supply chain disruptions and labor shortages.
“Schools consistently serve students healthy meals, but these disruptions leave short-staffed school nutrition teams scrambling to place additional orders for substitute menu items, find new vendors when orders are shorted, canceled or delayed, and even make trips to local stores to purchase necessary food and supplies,” the organization stated.
SNA spokesperson Diane Pratt-Heavner said the group is very concerned about communication.
“For some families, if your kid’s in first grade, you never knew a school meal is something you have to purchase,” Pratt-Heavner said. So local leaders need to communicate that families will need to apply to continue receiving that benefit.
The SNA has been urging federal lawmakers to extend the waivers through at least the next school year. Current challenges around staffing and inflation are not showing signs they will abate.
“Those waivers have been really critical,” Pratt-Heavner said. “Our organization has been urging Congress to give USDA the authority to extend the waivers to the next school year.”
Even school districts like Meriden that previously offered universal free meals will be severely impacted by the loss of waivers, Pratt-Heavner said.
“They won’t have to take on that application process. However, they will see a significant drop in reimbursement rates,” she said.
Another concern is that local nutrition directors will need to raise meal prices over what they had previously charged to reflect the ongoing cost increases.
During the time that school districts have offered universal free meals, the demographics of students whose families need the support has shifted, as many families have experienced income loss, Pratt-Heavner said.
She said early research around student nutrition during the pandemic showed students were getting their healthiest meals in school. Many school districts offer breakfast and lunch.
“It really is a loss for kids to not have that choice,” Pratt-Heavner said.
In Cheshire, the school district’s Food & Nutrition Services Director Erica Biagetti is bracing for the upcoming challenge.
Like in Southington, the Cheshire Public Schools offered all meals at no charge.
“It’s a huge relief for our students and their families,” Biagetti said of the current program. She described having access to healthy meals as an important part of students’ success.
With the universal offering of free meals, directors like Biagetti have seen fewer families submit free or reduced meal applications. If the waivers are not extended, local officials will need to remind families to submit applications.
“I think school nutrition has never seen more changes than in the past two years,” Biagetti said, referencing the numerous pandemic-related changes to service, in addition to the costs and the waiver programs.
Reporter Michael Gagne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.