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State College Area Approves Funding to Cover More Students as Universal Free School Meal Program Expires

Mount Nittany Middle School. StateCollege.com file photo

Federal waivers that made school meals free for all students will not continue for 2022-23, but State College Area School District is taking steps to ensure a larger segment of students will not have to pay for breakfast and lunch this year.

Eligible families across the country will return to applying for free and reduced meals based on household income. On Monday night, the State College Area School Board approved a plan that will keep meals free for students who would otherwise be eligible for reduced prices.

“Any way we can feed kids is a good thing, and it’s not easy work,” board member Jackie Huff said. “So thank you to all involved.”

Families below 130% of the poverty level will be approved for free meals and those between 130% and 185% will be approved for reduced-price meals.

But SCASD will use a combination of grants from Giant Food Stores and Food Service Department funds to cover the reduced-price payments so those students will continue to receive free meals, according to the plan proposed by Food Services Director Megan Schaper.

The district might also get other sponsors for the program, which Finance and Operations Officer Randy Brown said is estimated to cost $13,000.

Reduced-price meals are typically 30 cents for breakfast and 40 cents for lunch. While the district will not collect those payments this year, it will still receive subsidies from the commonwealth and from the US Department of Agriculture to help to cover the cost of those meals, Schaper wrote.

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress expanded free school meal to combat growing childhood hunger. The waivers that allowed all students to receive free meals regardless of income expired this summer.

The Keep Kids Fed Act passed in June provided nearly a $1 billion in resources to support meal programs for schools nationwide, but did not extend the universal waiver.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf urged Congress to extend the waivers in March. Last week, four Democratic state senators called on Wolf to take emergency administrative action to use any funding at his disposal to cover the cost of meals not already covered by free and reduced-price meal programs.

California, Maine, Nevada, New York and Vermont have passed state-level bills to provide universal free school meals.

“Currently, 1 in 7 children in Pennsylvania are experiencing food insecurity,” Melissa Froehlich, Student Nutrition Association of Pennsylvania public communication chair said in a statement issued with the letter to Wolf. “Studies have shown that school meals reduce childhood hunger, decrease childhood obesity, enhance development, support learning and contribute to positive mental health outcomes. Free meals for all students in Pennsylvania would strengthen child nutrition programs, address equity and stigmas around school meals and eliminate issues surrounding unpaid meal debt so more children would have access to nutritious meals.”

For SCASD, the plan to cover reduced-meal prices will be evaluated year-to-year.

“This proposal is solely for the [2022-23] school year to help these families as we transition back to the traditional school meals program,” Schaper wrote. “But, the Food Service Department will evaluate the effectiveness of this initiative and may solicit additional grants and donations to continue to provide this support to families in future years. We will make the appropriate recommendation annually when the board approves meal prices.”

Regular school meal prices for 2022-23 are:
• Breakfast: $1.50 elementary, $2.00 middle school, $2.25 high school
• Lunch: $2.70 elementary, $2.95 middle school, $3.50 high school
• Milk: 65 cents

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