End of universal free lunch at Georgia schools means sign-ups, pressure

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

For many metro Atlanta students returning to school cafeterias, there’s no longer any such thing as a free lunch.

A federally funded program allowed schools to provide meals at no charge to all students, regardless of income, for most of the past two years. But Congress has not extended that pandemic-era flexibility, forcing many families to once again get approved for free and reduced-price meals or fork over full price. The change has prompted concern from advocates who worry children could go hungry, especially as food costs rise.

Just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 60% of all Georgia public school children were eligible for free or reduced-price meals. Metro Atlanta districts are pushing parents to fill out paperwork immediately so that eligible, low-income students can continue to eat breakfast and lunch at no cost.

“I would be crazy to say I wouldn’t be worried about that. We are doing everything we can,” said Alyssia Wright, who oversees nutrition programs in Fulton County Schools.

The district set up school kiosks to assist parents with completing online forms and turned to Instagram, Facebook and newsletters to get the word out about the reinstated application requirement.

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Some schools with the very highest poverty rates are still providing universal no-cost meals under an ongoing federal reimbursement program. That covers about a third of Fulton schools, 60% in DeKalb County, and all of Clayton County.

All students at 52 Atlanta Public Schools sites can continue to eat for free. But the remaining 20 schools, in the city’s north and east neighborhoods, are reminding families to put money into an online account to buy breakfast or lunch, unless they qualify for no-cost meals. APS said staffers have been processing about a thousand applications a day for free and reduced-price meals.

School systems in Cobb, Fayette, Gwinnett and Henry counties are telling parents meal fees are back, unless they qualify for aid.

Advocates said the change is a burden for still-needy families who don’t meet income eligibility thresholds. A family of four must make $36,075 or less this year to receive free school meals or up to $51,338 to get reduced-price meals.

“A significant portion of the people who are food insecure across our region have incomes that are too high to be eligible,” said Kyle Waide, president and CEO of the Atlanta Community Food Bank.

With inflation driving up family’s grocery bills, “it’s a bad time to start removing access,” he said.

For many children, school meals are the healthiest food they eat, said Crystal FitzSimons, director of school programs for the Food Research & Action Center. The Washington, D.C., nonprofit is urging Congress to extend the program.

Some Georgia lawmakers have shown interest. In June, U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., signed onto a letter to congressional leaders urging greater access to free school meals. He co-sponsored legislation that would make meals free for all students. U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, an Atlanta Democrat, has also expressed support for free school lunches.

FitzSimons said universal free meals were “a game changer.” Some students pass up free meals out of embarrassment that they’ll be judged for living in poverty. When all children eat for free, it “levels the playing field,” she said.

She also expects students will once again rack up meal debt this year for food they received before their free applications were approved or because they struggle to pay the discounted lunch rate of 40 cents.

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

All APS students who go through the lunch line will be served regardless of application status, said Marilyn Hughes, the district’s senior executive director of nutrition. In Atlanta, a full-price lunch costs $3, and families are invoiced for fees they owe.

There are other supports: Some schools operate food pantries, and the district works with agencies to provide extra help, she said.

Most of the 600 million meals served by Georgia schools since the pandemic began were provided at no cost, except for brief periods when government approvals were pending, said Linette Dodson, of the Georgia Department of Education.

Fulton served 3%-6% more meals when all children were able to eat for free, Wright said. Some schools had even higher increases, especially at breakfast.

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Universal free school meals were important to the Latino community and to undocumented parents, said Carolina Ramos, advocacy and outreach director at the Latin American Association. The nonprofit has an office in Gwinnett County, where about a third of students are Hispanic.

“It didn’t require paperwork, and whenever undocumented people come to a program that requires paperwork, they’re less likely to apply,” she said.

The Gwinnett district said it’s trying to reach as many families as it can to encourage them to apply for help.

Ramos said she’s unsure how this year will play out: “I don’t know if parents even know about the change. I’m hoping it won’t be a terrible transition.”

Staff writer Leon Stafford contributed to this article.

Qualifying for free school meals

Family of two: Annual income of up to $23,803

Family of three: Annual income of up to $29,939

Family of four: Annual income of up to $36,075

Family of five: Annual income of up to $42,211

Source: Georgia Department of Education School Nutrition Program