OLDHAM COUNTY, Ky. — When President Joe Biden signed the $1.5 trillion federal spending bill, something that could affect many Kentucky families was notably absent.

What You Need To Know

  • Students have been able to get one meal per day at school at no cost to their families

  • A federal program, allowing the free lunches to be possible, will expire in June

  • President Joe Biden passed a spending bill that did not include an extension of the pandemic lunch waivers

  • If the waiver is not extended, families who do not qualify for free or reduced lunch will have to pay out-of-pocket again

The federal spending bill passed without COVID-19 measures that had previously been in place. That includes school lunch waivers.

Looking at the local impact, that means many Kentucky families would have to pay for school lunches once again, unless Congress passes a separate piece of legislation protecting that program, which will expire in June. For the past two years, students could get one meal per day for free at school.

Debbie Dunaway, the school nutrition manager at Oldham County Schools, said more students have been eating food her team makes since the pandemic lunch waivers went into place. She liked to see that.

“I just love feeding kids. I love for them to come in and be excited about their meal,” Dunaway said.

That’s been her driving factor for the past 24 years working in school nutrition services. Originally, she was mostly feeding kids for lunch. As of late, though, she has been seeing more kids eating breakfast at school too.

That’s because students can get one meal for free at school per day right now. Paying for one may not be challenging for some families, but two could push the budget. 

“It is very hard for parents to have to pay for lunch and breakfast. It’s really going to hurt our breakfast program,” Dunaway said.

She fears many students will stop eating breakfast at school once the pandemic lunch waivers ends. She said that worries her because she knows many middle schoolers would rather sleep in than get up early to eat a proper breakfast before heading into school. 

The Oldham County Director of School Nutrition, Carlina Loyd, said the federal pandemic lunch waivers have had a positive impact on nutrition services throughout the entire district. She noticed school lunch participation doubled when families could get one meal for free per day. 

The federal school lunch waivers will end in June. That means districts across the state will have to go back to the previous model. For some schools where a large enough percentage of the students are low income, this won’t change anything. In those schools, a federal program allows lunch to be free-for-all kids without having to apply individually. In Oldham County Schools, that’s only the case for the preschool and La Grange Elementary.

What that means for everyone else is that families will have to apply. Based on income, they may receive free or reduced lunch. If they do not qualify, parents will pay out-of-pocket. The other option would be to send students to school with a homemade lunch.

“Middle-class families will suffer because of this. With the increased price of gas and groceries at home, it’s going to be hard,” Loyd said. 

This isn’t just affecting Oldham County Schools, and it’s not just affecting Kentucky students either. This is a change for schools all across the country. 

It comes when school nutrition services face unprecedented challenges with supply chain woes.

School nutrition managers, like Dunaway, try to plan their menus in advance. They enter a grocery list into a portal. Loyd then puts in a lot of extra hours and effort to get them the food they ordered or as close to it as possible. It’s easier said than done when food supply chains have been so unstable.

“Certain days I can put in anywhere from 10 to 14 hours a day, sometimes six days a week, trying to get food and supplies in. I’ve had to use alternative vendors as well for backup that we haven’t had to do before,” Loyd said. “I try to be creative, trying to go with alternatives so we can make sure we have our lines looking as good as they do.”

They are also dealing with staffing shortages. That means sometimes Loyd has to fill in as a cook or nutrition manager. 

With all of that already creating unprecedented hurdles, they are not looking forward to another. If Congress does not allow an extension, the free meals for all students will end in June. This will not just affect Oldham County students. This is a federal funding change that would affect students and parents all across the country.