We face the heartbreaking possibility of canceling the Mayfield Independent School District school lunch program this summer, which would be devastating for thousands of students who live in Mayfield and three other school districts we serve over the course of the summer.
If free school meals for all ends after June 30, we simply won’t have the funds to reach all the children who need food, which, if last summer was any indication of the need in our region, we envision more than 10,000 children going hungry.
It’s unfair and unnecessary, especially at a time when we’re recovering from a tornado that leveled parts of our city and families are struggling with inflation.
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In response to the challenges of the pandemic, Congress gave the USDA the authority to issue nutritional waivers for children, which allowed districts like Mayfield to serve meals to all students at no charge, also known under the name of universal school meals. An additional 10 million students nationwide gained access to free meals, thanks to USDA waivers. This helps to alleviate the burden of some of the people facing food insecurity.
But families risk losing this access to free school meals very soon. School meals for all will expire on June 30. So Kentucky policymakers must step up and make them permanent in our state. California and Maine have already passed a state budget that includes free school meals for all, and similar campaigns are underway in other states. This is a chance for Kentucky to join these states in leading the nation to put the health of our children first.
Allowing universal school meals to expire would be devastating for Kentucky schools, students and families, especially since currently 1 in 6 children in Kentucky are food insecure. Children get up to half of their daily calories at school, and for many children, schools are the only constant source of nutritious food. Students rely on these meals year-round, both during the school year and during the summer.
Without the waivers, our families will have to go back to filling out complex paperwork necessary for a child to receive free or reduced-price meals, which depend on family income. Students in need often missed free or reduced-price meals due to income eligibility guidelines and application challenges, including language and literacy barriers.
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The stigma surrounding free school meals is one of the toughest barriers my staff and I face in feeding children. In the past, I have seen many students too embarrassed to join the lunch queue or pretend to have forgotten lunch, to avoid their peers noticing that they couldn’t afford it. to buy food. Before the pandemic, 98% of students at Mayfield relied on free and discounted lunches – a statistic that, sadly, I can only imagine could be higher today.
Two years into the pandemic and just months after the tornado, Kentucky families and schools are still hurting. Too many families still live in poverty and do not have enough to eat. Now is not the time to make access to food harder than it already is for families in Kentucky.
As the June 30 expiry date draws closer, adopting a universal school lunch plan will only become more urgent. Reaching students during the summer is difficult enough, and if we are unable to provide these students with meals they can afford, many will starve. We cannot let this happen. We just need to make universal school meals permanent in our state. Kentucky families count on us.
Leah Feagin is the Director of Food Services for the Mayfield Independent School District.