CLEVELAND — Last school year, the federal government funded free meals for millions of students across the country to help with pandemic relief. The waivers that provided free lunches for students expired in June.

Katherine Ungar, the Senior Policy Associate with Children’s Defense Fund of Ohio, said there will be a lot of children affected by this. 

What You Need To Know

  • The government funded free meals for millions last school year, but those waivers ended in June

  • Schools are back to their free and reduced lunch programs, but it only helps people within certain income groups 

  • There are ways to still have a healthy meal that don't break the bank

“We’re estimating that around 500,000 students who had free school meals in the last year will now either be required to pay for their meals or somehow find another way of getting that meal,” she said. 

Andrea Helton, the Director of Nutrition at Wellington Exempted Village School District, expressed the importance of providing kids with the nutrition they need to thrive. 

“An investment in the well-being of children really is an investment in all of us," Helton said. "We can have the best teachers in the world, the best schools, the best resources, but if that student is not fed, if they’re hungry, if they don’t have the food to sustain their energy levels, they won’t learn."

Schools will return to the free and reduced lunch program, which only helps certain students at specific income levels. For some families, packed lunches could be the smarter financial decision. Helton said families that plan on making packed lunches should follow USDA’s MyPlate guidelines.

“You want to make sure that your student has enough to feel sustained,” she said. 

Helton said knowing what students like and dislike, eating can be helpful for packing lunches.

“If you know that they’re not going to eat baby carrots unless there’s ranch dressing, maybe send a little bit of ranch dressing for them to make sure that they’re getting that nutrition and that you’re not wasting the money of purchasing those items if it’s not going to be consumed,” she said. 

Helton explained how to make sure food doesn't go to waste. 

“It’s cheaper if you’re buying fruits and vegetables, if you’re buying the whole fruit and vegetable, not the already cut up item," she said. "However, if it’s going to sit in your refrigerator or on your counter and end up being thrown away, then maybe it does make more sense to spend a little bit more money up front, so that you can easily pack it. Versus, having that whole pineapple sit there and then no one ever gets to eat it."

Helton said she hopes that free and reduced lunch programs will eventually expand so that more people can receive aid.