During the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of families in Oregon became used to students receiving free meals at school.
A variety of federal waivers meant every student could receive free breakfast and lunch during the pandemic, but those expired on June 30.
With many families now having to pay for meals, district officials in Central Oregon have said they’re concerned many families will no longer have access to free meals, while others may be completely unaware of the change. The waivers expired as inflation has driven up food costs nationwide, leaving many struggling to purchase food along with other necessities.
Across Oregon, 14% of children live in food insecure households, which the federal government defines as a consistent lack of access to enough food for a healthy lifestyle, in 2022. Of those kids, more than one-third do not qualify for free meals at school, according to the Oregon Hunger Task Force.
In Deschutes County, a large number of students could be impacted. Ten percent of children in the county live in food insecure households, and more than one-third of those students don’t qualify for free or reduced meals.
Alison Killeen, the interim co-executive director for Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon, said there’s a serious risk that students may start going to school hungry if they no longer qualify.
“Families really depend on school meals in order to make ends meet,” Killeen said.
Free meals end, but help is here
But while many families may lose access to free meals, more students will qualify due to expanded eligibility. The Oregon Legislature passed the Student Success Act in 2019, which raised the eligibility from 185% to 300% above the poverty line.
That means a family of four making no more than $83,000 a year can now qualify. The limit before the legislature acted was about $51,000, said Damasita Sanchez, food distribution program manager for the Oregon Department of Education.
The key, though, is getting families to apply for the program so they can take advantage.
“We are trying our best to help the schools get that message out to their communities,” Sanchez said.
That includes sending out postcards, calling families and including information in newsletters. Garra Schluter, assistant director of nutrition at Bend-La Pine Schools, said they’re already seeing more applications for free meals this year than pre-pandemic levels, around 2,800 so far, about 15% of all students in the district.
Schluter said that even with more students eligible for free meals, rising inflation in Bend — an already expensive place to live — means more families could be struggling to afford food.
“This community is a hard one to live in, especially right now,” she said.
Some districts have schools that qualify for “community eligibility,” meaning every student receives a free lunch automatically. Bend-La Pine, for example, has nine schools with community eligibility.
Worries about family debt
In addition to hungry students, multiple districts told OPB there’s a severe risk of students not knowing they no longer have free meals and accruing debt as a result.
A 2017 state law says schools are not allowed to question or shame students about not having lunch money at school. As a result, some students accrued a large amount of debt from not paying for meals, especially if the district could not collect the money from their parents.
That snowballed into some districts losing thousands of dollars, and some fear the problem could worsen at the start of this school year.
Lance McMurphy, director of nutrition at Redmond School District, said there’s a concern that more students will accrue meal debt if they don’t know they have to pay now. He said his district had “hundreds of thousands” of dollars in unpaid meals when he arrived in 2019.
“That’s what everybody’s worried about — we’re going back to having a huge amount of bad debt,” McMurphy said.
Sanchez said the state is hoping the Student Success Act will reduce the amount of debt, since more students won’t have to pay for lunch. She said, though, that a lot remains unclear because it hasn’t been done before.
Killeen said it’s important that families apply for free or reduced meals, even if they don’t believe they qualify. That way, more families in need can access free meals for their children.
Families wanting to apply for free or reduced lunch can do so at the Oregon Department of Education website.