The COVID-era universal free lunch program will no longer offer free or reduced meals the 2022-2023 school year.

For the last two years, the federal government made school lunches free to all children regardless of the family’s income. Now, students returning to school will have to fill out an application to qualify for free or reduced lunch, just as they did before the pandemic.

This will disproportionality impact many low income and minority families across the nation, who might not be aware of this information.

The Defender spoke with Franco Cruz, senior program manager for No Kid Hungry, a nonprofit working to find solutions to hunger and poverty in the U.S and internationally, to break down what families need to know about this update.

Defender: Why do families need to know right now?

Cruz: Congress passed the Keep Kids Fed Act, which is legislation that allowed schools and community organizations with more tools that they need for feeding children throughout this upcoming school year. The only thing the Act didn’t do was extend the flexibility that allows free meals for all families which lasted over these last two to three years. Families were used to receiving this because of the pandemic. The real important thing that families need to know is that all schools now don’t have free meals like they used to. Many school districts will require families to fill out a free or reduced lunch application to see if they qualify. This will certainly impact families with very young kids. Families need to check with their child’s school to see if they have free meals or not and that is determined through a federal program called “Community Eligibility Provision.”

Defender: What is the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP)?

Cruz: That is a federal program that schools can participate in. Schools can be eligible for this program based on demographics in their community that are largely financial led depending on income level and other qualifiers. So just because one school is eligible doesn’t mean the school district is eligible for the program. It’s a school-by-school basis. The broad message we want to get out there is for families to cover their bases. Check to see if your school qualifies before filling out the application. For example, HISD is a large school district, they have things down packed already because they have good data and they are good at identifying which school qualify and which don’t. So this applies for a lot of rural schools that we work with.

Defender: What has No Kid Hungry done so far to help families stay informed?

Cruz: This is our bread and butter. This nonprofit works across all 50 states including Texas. We are focused on eradicating child hunger. One of the most effective ways to combat childhood hunger is school meals because they are reimbursable. That means schools can continue to serve them in perpetuity every single year. We are big advocates of this and anything that helps support school districts in increasing meal access through school meals. Over the last year, we’ve partnered with school districts, hosted webinars, social media campaigns trying to inform people that regulation is ending. Inflation is at a 40-year high and living expenses, grocery bills, and gas are putting a strain on budgets. School meals give flexibility to your monthly budget. If families have a hard time putting food on the table you can check to see if you are eligible for SNAP and other local resources at yourtexasbenefits.com.

Laura Onyeneho

I cover Houston's education system as it relates to the Black community for the Defender as a Report for America corps member. I'm a multimedia journalist and have reported on social, cultural, lifestyle,...