School meals are no longer free for all students; Families are scrambling “We have to change everything”


Millions of families across the country have not had to pay for lunch at public schools and private nonprofit schools. Unless changes are made to a federal program before the school year, most students will again have to line their pockets with lunch money.

Seventeen-year-old Laura Parden, a future senior at Lincoln Northeast High School, liked not having to carry lunch money.

“I appreciate being able to go to lunch and not have to worry about paying,” Pardon said.

Laura and her twin siblings, Sarah and Ryan Parden, 14, have received free meals at school for the past two years.

“You have to easily save about $200 a month by doing the free lunches,” said Penny VanLear, mother of Laura, Sarah and Ryan Parden. “Because they would have free breakfast and free lunches.”

The US Congress passed theKeep Kids Fed Actwhich brings the school meals program back to an income-based system. The law was passed just days before the universal free lunch program is due to end on June 30.

VanLear was shocked and panicked upon hearing the news.

“Damn, I gotta reach out [and] calculate the budget,” she said.

Who is eligible?

Penny VanLear works two jobs. One at H&R Block where she has worked for 12 years. The other at the Lincoln City Treasury Office.

VanLear said they didn’t have to worry about paying for lunches before the pandemic.

“We were still qualifying for free at that point, with all four kids,” VanLear said.

Adam, 19, has since graduated and attends Southeast Community College in Lincoln.

Now, with three dependents instead of four, VanLear is placed in a different income bracket. She fears that her three children will not be entitled to free meals.

“In order to obtain free and reduced fare [with four kids], you had to make less than $42,000 a year,” VanLear said. “I make about $40,000 because they count gross [income]plus child support.

“I was barely under the limit. And now that I have three kids, I won’t qualify because it goes down to $37,000,” she said.

Currently, households living below 130% of the poverty line are entitled to free meals, according to the state department of education. For example, in a household of four, the poverty line is $27,750…130% of that income line is $36,075. Therefore, households of four earning less than $36,075 before taxes get a free lunch.

For households living between 130% and 185% of the poverty line, their children benefit from a reduction of $0.40 per lunch price and $0.30 per breakfast price. The poverty line is updated annually by the Department of Health and Social Services.

45.2% of Nebraska public school students as of the 2018-19 school year received a free or reduced lunch. That’s 147,328 students.

The United States Department of Agriculture took out his annual report on free and reduced lunches retailer who is eligible. The report is derived from rules established by Congress and the Department of Health’s poverty determinations.

USDA releases lunch price eligibility guidelines in early July. It is based on poverty reports published six months earlier.

Some school districts provide free lunch for all students. A school can apply to become Eligible community benefit school, if more than 40% of its pupils are entitled to a free and reduced price lunch. The USDA selects the schools most in need of full meal reimbursement. The program started in 2014.

Omaha Public Schools are approved as CEPs. Every OPS student will receive a free lunch this school year through the 2024-2025 school year. There are 22 total districts in Nebraska that have qualified for CEP in 2021-22.

Inflation: “Families have to scramble”

VanLear children will be entitled to discounted lunches, in accordance with the rules in force. However, the lunches alone will cost her about $25 more per month than she had anticipated. It would cost him around $170 a month to pay for full school meals.

“I still have a house payment of $1,000 a month,” she said. “I still have a car payment, even if it’s only $260 a month.”

This does not mean historically high daily costs and regularly raised inflation rate.

“With the price of gas going up drastically and the price of food going up drastically, we have to move everything around and either take more hours at work or cut expenses somewhere, and we’ve already cut that much expense as possible,” says Van Lear.

VanLear and her children currently live in Garland, Nebraska, a village of 216 people northwest of Lincoln. They commute 26 minutes to Lincoln for work and school.

“I couldn’t afford to rent right now because I have a four-bedroom house,” VanLear said. “It’s going to be $1400-1500 here in town (Lincoln).”

One thing that helps her with her food costs is living in a rural area. This gives VanLear a chance to be more self-sufficient.

“We have a big garden this year,” she said. “We have chicken, so we eat a lot of eggs.”

VanLear said she visits the Lincoln Food Bank produce truck when needed.


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