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Districts Preparing to Renew Application Process for School Meals

TOPEKA – Kansas school boards are setting meal prices and parents will have to fill out paperwork again to apply for free or reduced meals for their children based on action taken last week by the federal government.

Congress approved and President Joe Biden signed into law the Keep Kids Fed Act, which includes numerous provisions sought by child and health advocates to provide meals for students.

But one important provision was dropped from the bill after Republican opposition — extension of waivers that allowed schools to provide free meals to any student regardless of income. The so-called universal free meals practice had been put into place by the federal government over the past two years to help families and schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As initially proposed by a bi-partisan group of legislators, the Keep Kids Fed Act would have continued universal free meals for the upcoming school year. That was approved by the House 376-42 but ran into a roadblock in the Senate when U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ken., threatened to filibuster the bill unless the proposal returned to the price meal standards based on family income. Some Republicans argued universal free school lunches was a pandemic-era program that shouldn’t be made permanent.

The bill also helped families with meals for students through the summer and contained other provisions sought by health advocates. So, with an expiration deadline approaching, the Senate made the change Paul sought, passed the bill unanimously and sent it back to the House, where the changes were also approved.

Prior to COVID, free-and-reduced lunch eligibility was usually determined by household income and household size. Families were required to fill out forms to receive the benefit, but that paperwork was waived during the pandemic. Now, families will once again have to apply for free and reduced-price meals to determine eligibility.

To qualify for free meals, a household of four would have to make annually under $36,075, and for reduced price meals, $51,338, according to federal child nutrition eligibility guidelines.

While advocates praised passage of the bill, they said Congress should continue to act to extend the waivers needed to provide meals at no charge through the upcoming school year. They said they need another year because many families are struggling with rising food and gas costs.

The bill signed into law does include provisions to assist in summer meals, increase the school meal reimbursements, and incentivize nutritious meals and snacks.

“I’m disappointed we had to make this change. But without this bill, we would have no support for kids at all,” said U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Local school boards are required to set meal prices. They can charge no more than 30 cents per breakfast meal and 40 cents per lunch meal, but can waive the cost of reduced price meals, according to the Kansas State Department of Education. Here and here are links to two question-and-answer guides from KSDE.