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States are looking for ways to make free school meals permanent

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Here's one COVID-related shift that public school students are still facing across the country. All school meals had been free during the first two years of the pandemic, but lawmakers in Washington chose to end that benefit for the current school year, so students are back to paying for school-provided breakfast and lunch. As NPR's Ximena Bustillo reports, some states are now taking that policy into their own hands.

XIMENA BUSTILLO, BYLINE: Benjamin Brown, Sean Davison and Owen Kelliher have been best friends since middle school. Now they're rounding out their senior year. And like hundreds of other students across the Mount Abraham Unified School District in Vermont, they eat free breakfast and lunch every day, and they have their favorites.

SEAN DAVISON: So there's, like, this Mexican bean and corn thing that they serve every once in a while that is so good.

BENJAMIN BROWN: What?

DAVISON: It's so good.

BROWN: That's the least good.

DAVISON: No, like the salsa stuff.

OWEN KELLIHER: My least favorite is the stir fry day.

BROWN: What?

KELLIHER: Everyone is always talking about how much they love stir fry.

BROWN: What?

KELLIHER: No. See?

DAVISON: No, that's good.

KELLIHER: Everyone's like, stir fry day is so good. I'm just not a stir fry fan.

BUSTILLO: Today they can walk right up to the counter and pick what they want to eat - no cash register involved. Before, they needed enough money in their account to pay for the food. Benjamin remembers it could make lunchtime more stressful.

BROWN: There were a few times where it was - I knew the account was low. So I usually went light on lunch just because I knew that - I knew my mother would fill it eventually. I didn't often worry about having the money, but it was whether or not it was there at the time.

BUSTILLO: As pandemic restrictions loosened, Vermont started a pilot program to continue providing universal free meals in school. Now there's a push to make that permanent, and school leaders are hoping that it will join the five other states that have made school meals free. The National School Lunch Program is operated by the federal government. Students will either pay full price, a reduced price or get their meals for free depending on their family income. A family of four has to make less than $36,000 a year to qualify for those free meals. Before the pandemic, school nutrition advocates already had concerns. They argued it left out kids who didn't make the income cutoff, left schools with thousands in lunch debt and led to student embarrassment. That's something Owen remembers feeling.

KELLIHER: If my parents forgot to, like, reload the thing, it would be like, oh, you need to tell your parents they need to put more money in that account. And it was like, OK. I was, like, 8. I don't really know what any of these words mean, but...

BUSTILLO: Andy Haas, the building administrator at Bellows Falls High School, remembers those days and the frustration for students and school staff.

ANDY HAAS: I can remember having to tell a student that didn't qualify, you know, for a meal. And they didn't have the money, and so I had to take the meal away from them. And then we can't put it back into circulation, and so we have to throw it out in front of the student and then provide them, like, a SunButter sandwich or a cheese sandwich. It's just ridiculous.

BUSTILLO: Food service directors like Kathy Alexander in the Mount Abraham Unified School District feels that if the free meal program is not made permanent by the state, schools will face steep price tags.

KATHY ALEXANDER: If we end up going back to a paid meal system, what will happen is that our programs will be in huge financial jeopardy because we will be faced with huge unpaid debt.

BUSTILLO: Advocates also say income levels don't determine if bills are paid or if kids eat nutritious food, especially with high food costs. Here is Crystal FitzSimons of the Food Research and Action Center, who says states without free meal programs are now facing mounting school lunch debt. That's when students get meals, but they don't pay the bill.

CRYSTAL FITZSIMONS: What we are hearing anecdotally is that unpaid school meal debt has come up, that schools are struggling to get kids certified for free or reduced price school meals and that some school districts are actually reporting higher denials.

BUSTILLO: For many families in states like Vermont, free meals aren't an extra benefit. They're the norm. Over a dozen other states have similar proposals to Vermont's, where school leaders hope to become a nationwide example. Legislatures think they can get the bill through the finish line and to the Republican governor's desk, where he's expected to sign it. Ximena Bustillo, NPR News, Vermont.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRIMES SONG, "VOWELS = SPACE AND TIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.