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Howard County Times
Howard County

Howard County schools and families grapple with end to universal free meals program

Howard County students who had depended on free school meals for the last two years faced a major change with the start of the new school year.

Federal waivers that provided free meals to all students regardless of income, inspired by the pandemic, expired June 30, meaning schools are once again charging students who do not qualify for the federal Free and Reduced Price Meals, or FARM program.

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“We’re going to be looking at more families struggling with food insecurity and more school systems struggling to collect those forms and keep up with the school meal debt that’s going to accumulate.”

—  Julia Gross, an anti-hunger program associate at Maryland Hunger Solutions

“It’s absolutely important to get that message to the parents,” said Brian Ralph, Howard County Public School System’s director of food and nutrition services. “There could be lots of students and parents who are unaware that that provision has come to an end.”

During the pandemic, an estimated 10 million children who previously paid for school meals got them for free, thanks to a COVID-19 relief measure passed by Congress. Studies show that the policy helped reduce childhood hunger rates and supported academic achievement, but lawmakers did not extend universal meals for a third year.

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“[The waivers] increased availability of meals and really helped mitigate a huge problem that happened at the beginning of the pandemic,” said Julia Gross, an anti-hunger program associate at Maryland Hunger Solutions, a nonprofit working to end hunger and improve health and nutrition services across the state. “We’re very fortunate that it’s been expanded and extended for this long, but really unfortunate that we’re seeing those waivers end this fall.”

HCPSS participates in the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs, which provide federal funding to help cover the costs of school meals for children. While children in households that receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program support automatically eat for free at schools, most applicants must meet federal income guidelines based on household size to qualify for the FARM program.

A household of four, for instance, must earn less than $51,338 annually to qualify for reduced-price meals and $36,075 to qualify for free meals. Experts warn that those guidelines do not affect all families equally, especially as meal prices and other expenses vary around the country.

“We know in Maryland, with a high cost of living, those families that are making over that could still be struggling to make ends meet and keep food on the table,” Gross said. “We’re going to be looking at more families struggling with food insecurity and more school systems struggling to collect those forms and keep up with the school meal debt that’s going to accumulate.”

Some states, including California and Maine, opted to continue the universal free meals program by covering costs at the state level. A bill that would have done the same in Maryland failed to pass the General Assembly this year. The state did decide to subsidize all reduced-price meals, ensuring that any Maryland student who qualifies for reduced-price meals also eats for free.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s community eligibility provision also provides free meals to any students enrolled at public schools where at least 40% of students are already eligible for free lunch. Three Howard County schools currently participate in CEP, according to Ralph.

“Kids in those schools are still going to have those meals provided for them,” Gross said. “But the students in other schools are really going to have to make sure that they get those forms in this year.”

In addition to getting the word out to families that they must apply to the FARM program again, the Howard school system has adopted several other policies aimed at reducing the burden on families.

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HCPSS food services has pushed to keep meal prices constant since the 2019-2020 school year, shouldering the burden internally.

“We recognized that this is going to be a big transition back to the norm,” Ralph explained. “What we tried to do was to see how we could tweak our system operationally to be even more efficient and not burden that kid or the parents with a price increase just coming out of a pandemic.”

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Meals are given to all students, regardless of their ability to pay, but if they are not enrolled in the FARM program they will incur meal debt, which has been a major challenge for the system in years past. For the 2022-2023 school year, all existing meal debt was wiped out and absorbed by the district’s operating budget, giving families a clean slate.

“How realistic would it be, coming out of a pandemic with meals free for two years, to tell a person, ‘Look, you owe me $200?’” Ralph said.

The percentage of Howard County students enrolled in the FARM program has increased each of the past eight school years, from 20.24% in 2014-2015 to 26.88% last year. This year’s rate was 24.74% as of Aug. 30, and Ralph says it could hit 27%, especially since children whose parents are enrolled in Medicaid now automatically qualify for free meals.

As food services continues to encourage applications through their webpage and paper applications distributed to all county schools, Ralph hopes that families understand that “FARM is more than food.” By qualifying for free and reduced-price meals, students become eligible for a range of other benefits, including discounts for summer, recreation and internet programs and free registration for ACT and SAT tests.

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Gross hopes that Maryland will eventually follow other states that have continued providing all students free meals, regardless of income.

“We’ve seen the ways that providing school meals to all students has been beneficial over the past two years,” she said. “This is a really critical moment to push that message out and make sure that families are getting connected to those meals this year, but also don’t have to go back to a system that puts up additional barriers permanently.”

More information about the Free and Reduced Meals program and how to apply can be found on the HCPSS food services website.


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