Free lunch for some Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools students ends this week despite new law

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A bill approved by Congress and signed by the president last week will help Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools nutrition officials offset rising food costs, but free lunch for all students is a thing of the past.

Lawmakers on Friday approved the $3 billion Keep Kids Fed Act, a compromise to a federal program created out of the pandemic that gave all students free breakfast and lunch. But the program expires Thursday because Congress didn’t include an extension in the federal 2022 spending bill.

The Keep Kids Fed Act extends all waivers through the summer, meaning kids participating in CMS summer camps continue to get free meals. CMS will continue to provide free breakfast in all schools during the 2022-2023 school year, but not all students will receive free lunch.

The act also offers federal reimbursement higher than pre-pandemic rates through the upcoming school year.

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How will it affect students?

The biggest omission is the flexibility that allowed all children to receive free school meals regardless of income. The bill requires most low-income families in CMS to apply for free or reduced price lunch.

CMS spokeswoman Cassie Fambro said meal programs will return to normal procedures for the upcoming school year, which means families will have to qualify for free or reduced lunch by filling out an application. Applications will be available to complete online or on paper Aug. 1. During the pandemic, lunch was free for all students and families weren’t required to fill out paperwork.

As of April 1, 2019, 48.6% of CMS students were on free or reduced lunch.

“Students not approved for free lunch will need to have cash or money on account to pay for lunch,” Fambro said.

For pre-K students, the lunch meal price is $2.50; K-8 students pay $2.75 and 9-12 students pay $3. The reduced price lunch meal is 40 cents.

CMS has 68 schools that fall into the community eligibility provision, an option for schools and districts in low-income areas. The program allows schools to serve meals at no charge to all enrolled students, and families do not have to fill out an application.

How will school system be affected?

The legislation continues to give districts extra money as reimbursement for higher food and labor costs. CMS will receive an additional 15 cents for each breakfast and 40 cents for each lunch on top of the 2022-23 rate district officials are still waiting on, Fambro said.

More than 98% of school meal programs across the country reported shortages of menu items, supplies and packaging as well as menu items being discontinued by manufacturers, according to the School Nutrition Association’s 2021 Supply Chain Survey. The shortages leave school nutrition officials forced to place additional orders, find new vendors or “even make trips to local stores.”

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