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A program providing free meals for all public school students will expire in June

Public schools have been able to provide free meals to all students regardless of their families’ income because of waivers Congress passed at the start of the pandemic. But families could soon have to start paying for their kids’ lunches again as food prices rise.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s waivers that allow schools to serve every student lunch, at no cost to their families, are set to expire in June.

That means most schools will likely go back to the old income-based system, in which families have to qualify to get free school meals or pay a reduced price.

Kurt Marthaller, who oversees central services for the Butte School District, says the waivers benefited the Butte community.

“I think that took the stigma out where we don't have it anymore," he said. "That's all free, everybody's all on the same level.”

He says the district is serving about 45% more breakfasts and 23% more lunches a day compared to pre-pandemic levels.
Marthaller worries that many parents — stretched thin as it is with rising inflation and gas prices — have gotten used to free meals and that they won’t understand why they suddenly have to start paying a bill again.

A recent USDA report says supermarket food prices are more than 8% higher than they were a year ago.

Copyright 2022 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Kristine de Leon