Credit: AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis
'Lunch debt' in Georgia returns after the end of free lunch for all
LISTEN: GPB's Peter Biello speaks with Alessandra Ferarra-Miller about school lunch debt in Georgia.
Federal funding helped schools provide free lunch to all students regardless of income for most of the pandemic, but now that Congress has let that funding expire, students once again have to apply for free or reduced price lunch. That change has some worried about whether kids in Georgia schools are getting enough to eat, or whether schools will once again start putting families in debt over their daily school meals. GPB's Peter Biello spoke about this with Alessandra Ferrara-Miller, founder of All For Lunch, a nonprofit dedicated to wiping out lunch debt.
Biello: During the pandemic, schools covered the cost of lunch. So school lunch debt wasn't really a thing. But now it's possible for debt to accumulate. What are you hearing from schools now?
Ferrara-Miller: In Georgia, we've had schools only in for the past couple of weeks and I'm already having cafeteria managers and principals reach out to see if we are still able to help eliminate the school lunch debt, which is already accruing in elementary schools through high schools.
Biello: And how does that compare to what you were hearing from schools before this funding expired?
Ferrara-Miller: Before the funding expired, we really did not hear much from schools. Children were able to access breakfast and lunch at no cost to the family. So whether you qualify for free or reduced [lunch] at that time or not, children were able to access these meals without carrying the financial burden.
Biello: What is the impact on students when this funding expires and their families have to now apply for free or reduced price lunch?
Ferrara-Miller: With the children that do qualify for free and reduced lunch, there is an application process where they need to be approved. This year, to qualify for free lunch, a family of four needs to make $36,075 or lower and for reduced lunch, that number is just around $51,000. So while they are in these application processes, children are still required to pay for their lunches, where some families may not be able to afford those costs for the meals.
Biello: There are circumstances that might make people less likely to want to apply, even if they for sure would qualify. I'm thinking of people who might have some other government benefits, like food stamps, or if they are undocumented immigrants and they don't want to let yet another government agency know more about them. Are there real concerns there?
Ferrara-Miller: Definitely. We have met with many schools where they have mentioned it as a concern and a problem where children who would qualify for those free or reduced meals, the families are hesitant or reluctant to fill out the applications because they're afraid it's going to impact benefits they already have. A school was explaining to us how a family that definitely qualified — they had multiple children in their elementary school — and the father refused to fill out the form because he was worried about his disability benefits being affected. This is an unwarranted concern. The applications do only go to the school nutrition offices. However, it is a very lengthy form that requires a lot of personal information, which deters some people away from it.
Biello: You mentioned that one example about someone worried about their disability benefits. What about immigration status? Should people who are undocumented worry about applying?
Ferrara-Miller: No. Anybody who meets the threshold to qualify for free or reduced really should apply. It does not go outside of the school district.
Biello: And what can you tell us about the areas or schools of greatest need?
Ferrara-Miller: We see a lot more [need] where there's high minority enrollment and the less affluent areas. No matter if it's an affluent area or not, there are always children that are struggling with lunch debt. We have met with principals who are in cities and parts of the state that you wouldn't assume this would be a problem. And they explain to us that people aren't aware that we have students living in their cars that don't know where their next meal is coming from. And this is the only meal of the day that they're looking forward to. So it really does affect children of every race, every area. There are children struggling with this.