Over the next three months, thousands of children in Kentucky will spend their Summer worried, irritated, and sad all because of one thing – hunger. School administrators, like Leah Feagin, are anxious for the children that depend on school meals year-round. The following Op-Ed, written by Feagin, demonstrates the urgency with which we must address childhood food insecurity. – Jamie Sizemore, Executive Director of FAKH
We are facing the heartbreaking possibility of canceling Mayfield Independent School District’s school meals program this summer, which would be devastating for thousands of students who live in Mayfield and in three other school districts that we serve over the summer.
“If school meals for all at no charge ends after June 30, we simply won’t have the funds to reach all the children in need of food, which if last summer was any indication of the need in our area, we’re looking at upwards of 10,000 children who will go hungry.“
It’s unfair and unnecessary, particularly at a time when we’re recovering from a tornado that leveled parts of our town and families are grappling with inflation.
In response to the challenges of the pandemic, Congress gave the USDA authority to issue child nutrition waivers, which permitted districts like Mayfield to serve meals to all students at no cost, also known as universal school meals. An additional 10 million students nationwide have been given access to meals free of charge, thanks to the USDA waivers. This helps alleviate the burden for a portion of individuals facing food insecurity.
But families stand to lose that access to school meals free of charge very soon. School meals for all will expire on June 30. So, Kentucky policymakers must step up and make them permanent in our state. California and Maine have already passed a state budget that includes school meals for all free of charge, and similar campaigns are underway in other states. This is a chance for Kentucky to join these states in leading the nation to put our children’s health first.
“Allowing universal school meals to expire would be devastating for schools, students and families in Kentucky, particularly as currently, 1 in 6 children in Kentucky are food insecure [1 in 5 in the Heartland’s service area]. “
Children get up to half of their daily calories at school, and for many children, schools are the only consistent source of nutritious food. Students rely on these meals year-round, both during the school year and over the summer.
Without the waivers, our families will have to go back to completing complex paperwork that is required for a child to receive free – or reduced-price meals, which depend on family income. Students in need often missed out on free or reduced-price meals due to income eligibility guidelines and application challenges including language and literacy barriers.
The stigma surrounding free school meals is one of the hardest barriers my staff and I face feeding kids. In the past, I’ve seen many students too embarrassed to join the lunch line or pretend to have forgotten lunch, to avoid their peers noticing that they can’t afford food. Before the pandemic, 98% of Mayfield’s students relied on free- and reduced-price lunches – a statistic that, sadly, I can only imagine may be higher today.
“Two years since the pandemic began and just a few months after the tornado, Kentucky families and schools are still hurting. Too many families are still living in poverty and do not have enough food to eat. Now is not the time to make access to food harder than it already is for Kentucky families.“
As the June 30 expiration date grows closer, passing a universal school meals plan will only grow more and more urgent. Reaching students during the summer is already difficult, and if we’re unable to offer those students meals they can afford, many will go hungry. We can’t let this happen. We simply must make universal school meals permanent in our state. Kentucky families are depending on us.
Leah Feagin is the Food Service Director for Mayfield Independent School District and President-Elect of the Kentucky School Nutrition Association