By Janelle Fisher
BROWN COUNTY – As back-to-school season approaches, many area families will have to account for an expense they haven’t had for the past two years – school meals.
During the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years, school meals were made available to all students in the country at no cost thanks to a federal waiver that permitted schools to provide universal free meals.
That waiver, however, expired on June 30, and with no legislation in place to extend or replace it, school districts have to return to charging for school meals.
On top of that, inflation has forced many area schools to increase their meal prices for the upcoming school year.
These increases coming off of two years of free lunches have been a hot topic of discussion amongst school board members and school nutrition employees throughout the area.
Jennifer Tilot, school nutrition coordinator for the School District of West De Pere, said that the district saw an increase in students eating school lunches over the past two years.
“We saw a huge increase in participation when meals went free,” she said.
Through the availability of free meals, Tilot said students realized what school meals had to offer, and they tried – and enjoyed – many new things.
“Students were introduced to school meals and I feel like they didn’t realize everything that was offered with the breakfast and lunch programs,” she said. “Students liked many different options and tried new things.”
Tilot said that having free lunches available to all students helped eliminate some of the stigma around free and reduced lunches because “it put everyone on equal ground.”
Lynette Kiehnau, director of food services for Green Bay Area Public Schools, made similar observations at the School Board’s August 8 meeting during the discussion about raising school meal prices.
When asked whether the availability of free lunches to all students increased participation from students who really needed it, she said “if you’re talking about students who, due to the families’ circumstances, are free and reduced, absolutely.”
With the end of free lunches for all students, Tilot said she anticipates some difficulty for families in the district to pay for school meals.
“I think it is a hard time for it to end as inflation has grown so quickly,” she said. “I believe it will be difficult for many families to afford school meals.”
Kiehnau made a similar point, noting that free school lunches could provide some relief to families struggling with inflation at the grocery stores.
“To be frank, I think (lunches) should still be free,” she said. “We see an increase, but so do our families at the grocery stores.”
Free and reduced meals are still available in all districts to students who qualify.
Tilot said families worried about paying for school meals are encouraged to apply for the free and reduced meals program or call the school nutrition department for assistance.