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Free lunches? They're no more, despite the efforts of Dover-Eyota's Carrie Frank

There were more than 130,000 letters sent to Congress about the issue. There also were 700 School Nutrition Association members working on the issue on Capitol Hill.

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Carrie Frank, third from left, recently traveled to Washington D.C. as president of the Minnesota School Nutrition Association to advocate for the continuation of free lunch waivers.
Contributed / Carrie Frank

WASHINGTON, DC — Carrie Frank tried her hardest to keep school meals free for at least a little while longer.

Frank is the food and nutrition director for Dover-Eyota Public Schools, but she’s also the president of the Minnesota School Nutrition Association. And in that role, she went to Washington D.C. last week to advocate for waiver extensions which would have allowed schools to continue to offer free meals to students.

Those waivers were implemented during the pandemic to help provide relief for families. Frank, however, believes the discontinuation of the waivers also could affect schools themselves.

“If the food service fund goes in the red, the general fund has to (compensate for it),” Frank said. “We feel it’s going to make financial hardships for a lot of districts.”

According to the School Nutrition Association, the pandemic-era waivers “kept school meal programs financially afloat by reimbursing free meals at a higher rate to account for rising food, supply and labor costs.”

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The free meal waivers also were beneficial in the sense that school districts had to absorb any school lunch dues that were not paid throughout the year.

On Wednesday, the Association announced the waivers ultimately were not included in the federal bill. That means that, unless there is state funding that would come through to compensate for the lost federal funding, schools will have to start charging for meals once again starting after June.

Making school meals free wasn’t the only waiver the association pursued. Members also tried to extend a waiver that would have allowed schools to forego their nutritional requirements.

That may sound counterintuitive to the goal of school meal programs, but in a tight market it has become more difficult to find suppliers making meals that met the requirements.

“There’s no money in making school-compliant food,” Frank said. “There’s a 20% labor shortage in these processing plants. So when they have employees, they’re going after the retail market.”

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Along with other members of the association, Frank advocated for the waivers by speaking to members of Congress.

It wasn’t just Frank making the effort. According to the School Nutrition Association, there were more than 130,000 letters sent to Congress about the issue. There also were 700 School Nutrition Association members working on the issue on Capitol Hill. Frank said there were 17 representatives from Minnesota.

In spite of the negative effects of the discontinuation of the waivers, there could be some benefits. Free meals meant families had less incentive to disclose their financial status to school districts. That provided a challenge for schools since they receive funding based on the number of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch.

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And for some districts, that can make a substantial difference. According to Rochester Public Schools Finance Director John Carlson, districts are able to use that additional funding — known as “compensatory funding” — for expenses such as extra teachers, social workers, and paraprofessionals.

During the 2016-17 school year, Rochester Public Schools counted 6,205 students who were eligible for free or reduced lunch. During the 2021-22 school year, the district counted 4,932 students eligible for free and reduced lunch. The difference in funding between those two years based on those student counts was $2.9 million.

Jordan Shearer covers K-12 education for the Post Bulletin. A Rochester native, he graduated from Bemidji State University in 2013 before heading out to write for a small newsroom in the boonies of western Nebraska. Bringing things full circle, he returned to Rochester in 2020 just shy of a decade after leaving. Readers can reach Jordan at 507-285-7710 or jshearer@postbulletin.com.
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