With federal school lunch waivers set to expire, Illinois districts worry: How will we feed students?

A food service worker assembles lunch bags.
Illinois school districts provided free lunch to all students and allowed students to take home meals early in the pandemic. This summer will be different as federal waivers that gave districts flexibility are set to expire June 30. (Stacey Rupolo/Chalkbeat)
The fight to rebuild school communities after years of pandemic-era uncertainty.

Even as the COVID pandemic closed schools and made it harder for students to eat together in cafeterias over the last two years, McHenry School District 15 was still able to provide meals. Students could pick up lunch and breakfast and the district distributed 15,000 meals to all of its 4,000-plus students last summer.

But that program will not continue this year – as federal waivers that gave school districts around the country the ability to offer free lunch to all students and to provide grab-and-go meals are set to expire June 30

As a result, McHenry, where 41% of students are eligible for free or reduced price meals, will have to scrap its summer lunch program this year, said Kevin Harris, the district’s director of food services and president of the Illinois School Nutrition Association.

McHenry is not alone. Schools districts across Illinois – and around the country – are scrambling to  adjust their summer lunch programs this year after Republican leaders objected to extending the initiative as part of a recent federal budget deal. 

The waivers, issued in response to the pandemic in 2020, allowed schools to provide meals to students who were quarantined or when school buildings closed. Districts received a larger reimbursement and schools did not have to tap into education budgets to pay for food. The initiative allowed all students to receive free meals, regardless of eligibility for  free or reduced price lunch – and gave school districts greater flexibility in how they operate meal programs.

The waivers will expire on June 30, as scheduled, school districts will bear the burden of paying more for food. The average reimbursement a school gets will drop from $4.56 to an estimated $2.91 for each meal served.

That will also present an additional burden for families already grappling with the rising cost of food, utilities, and gasoline and the loss of the expanded child tax credit, which ended in December. National data shows that the tax credit decreased child poverty and hunger when it was in effect. 

Students whose families are eligible for free or reduced price lunch will still be able to access meals next school year and districts where 40% of the student population is eligible for subsidized meals can continue to use the Community Eligibility Provision program, which allows them to provide free lunch to all students under the age of 18. 

But the ending of the nutrition waiver and the federal child tax credit means that some children might go hungry.

Some advocates such as Emily Warnecke, director of public policy at the Illinois Association of School Administrators, are concerned about students who don’t meet the requirement for free or reduced price meals, but whose families still face economic hardship.

“There are a lot of families who don’t qualify for [free or reduced lunch] who have been able to have a reduction in meal costs for their students over the last two years,” said Warnecke. “We are hearing a lot about inflation and the impact that it’s going to have on our families. We would have liked for the waivers to be extended for at least one more school to help them through that.”

National advocates say access to meals throughout the school day increases students’ academic achievement in classrooms and on standardized tests. The Food Research and Action Center has even called for “Free Meals for All” to get rid of the stigma attached to free or reduced price lunch and to eliminate lunch debt for those who have to pay for school meals. 

Illinois school district leaders and food nutrition directors say they wish the federal waivers were extended this year because it gave them more flexibility to feed students. Some districts will be utilizing federal emergency funds to work with community partners to feed students, while others will have to cut their programs. 

When Chicago Public Schools classrooms were closed from March 2020 to September 2020, the district gave millions of meals to students and expanded pick-up sites throughout the city. According to the state’s recent report card, the district has 78% of students who are eligible for free and reduced price lunch.

According to a spokesperson, Chicago will resume its summer LunchStop program, which allows anyone in the community under 18 to receive meals for free.  

Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat, superintendent of Peoria School District 150, where 70% of students can receive free or reduced price meals, is optimistic about how many meals the school district will be able to offer students over the summer. 

Last summer, the district had over 20 distribution sites at school buildings where students could pick up lunch and a partnership with the Salvation Army to drop off food at students’ front door. The district was able to provide 600,000 meals to 12,000 students. 

This summer, Peoria plans to work with the Salvation Army, Park District, Boys and Girls Club, and other community partners to provide meals to students attending summer programs. The district will also operate 17 school sites for students to pick up lunches during summer

McHenry School District 15 plans to provide a snack to students who attend the district’s summer school program that lasts for three weeks. But the district does not have enough staff in the summer to open a school building to allow students to come in and eat, said Harris, McHenry’s school nutrition director. 

Even if the district did open one building to feed students, he worries that many students would not show up because it would be too far for some families to travel.

“It is important but a meal is $3. Are you going to ride all the way across town to drop your kid off for lunch so they can have a $3 meal versus saving the gas and not drive 10 miles round trip?” said Harris. “It’s a tough decision for families.”

Samantha Smylie is the state education reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago, covering school districts across the state, legislation, special education, and the state board of education. Contact Samantha at ssmylie@chalkbeat.org.

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