But it’s not what you think
More than 30 million children in the United States receive free- or reduced-priced meals at school, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National School Lunch Program.
At Campbell County High School (CCHS), those numbers averaged roughly 365 students in year 2018-19, 360 students in year 2019–20 and 225 in 2020-21, with roughly 1,045 students, 1,057 students and 1,030 students enrolled at the local high school during the same school years. During a pandemic, it would make sense that local families would be utilizing this service to help feed their kids this year.
However, that’s not the case.
According to a recent report to the CCSD Board of Trustees from CCHS Principal Chad Bourgeois at last week’s Tuesday night regularly scheduled meeting, those numbers are actually much lower. A trend that’s echoed districtwide, per the report.
How this happened
To help families during the pandemic, the USDA made school lunches free for students shortly after the beginning of the 2020-21 school year through the end of December. Before expiring, however, the USDA also extended free school lunches for all programs through the end of the school year while authorizing certain schools to provide meals for students during their closures to ensure children had food to eat.
States then switched to their Summer Food Service Programs or Seamless Summer Options to continue to serve those meals after closing for the summer. That program allows for up to two meals per day for children 18 and under, per the USDA.
These Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) programs grant access to government-funded meals despite school closures — waiving many of the restrictions and procedures that might pose obstacles for families seeking meals.
This meant that last year there was more funding to go around.
Similarly, The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, signed by President Trump in March, allows the USDA the ability to issue nationwide waivers to further increase flexibilities for making emergency supplemental appropriations.
While helpful in the short term, the glut in funding last year may have adverse effects moving forward.
Everything in education is based upon average daily membership (ADM) or similar head counts. ADM refers to the average number of students enrolled within a school or district each day over a specific period. Funding for all of Wyoming’s schools and districts is based upon ADM and federal funding in schools is based upon head counts too.
Campbell County serves eight elementary schools with Title I funds, two private schools and the district’s Ready for Learning Pre-K program. Title 1 is a federal program that provides funding for schools with high numbers of free– and reduced-price lunch recipients for teaching aides and other student support.
Unfortunately, with the numbers skewed in light of the pandemic, low free and reduced lunch participation could lead to a drastic cut in Title I funding for Campbell County schools.
With school lunch free for all students, most parents are avoiding and/or see no reason to sign up their children for these services, even though they would likely qualify.
Based upon the substantial downward change in students enrolled in free and reduced lunch in Campbell County, that could lead to drastic cuts in Title I funding.
CCSD Deputy Superintendent Kirby Eisenhauer told County 17 by phone last week that the district is currently appealing some of the counts to the state and working with other districts, the state and federal government to find a solution that recognizes the changes brought about by the USDA program change and the pandemic.
Federal rules limit the drop from one year to the next, regardless of drop in student participation numbers, from exceeding 15%, Eisenhauer said. However, a 15% cut to programs that help students whose families are likely most affected by the pandemic, unemployment and changes in the workforce could be substantial.
For now, it’s a waiting game, Eisenhauer said.
Mark Christensen contributed to this story.