Under a hot June sun, Kristy Bisbal arrives at a small stand to collect 10 brown paper bags full of sandwiches, fruit and milk. She’s been coming to the stand — run by volunteers for the City of Englewood and staff from the Englewood School District outside the city’s Civic Center — three to four times for the past week.
“It helps a lot,” Bisbal said. “You don’t have to worry about how you’re going to feed your kids.”
Bisbal is one of hundreds of parents who've participated in the district’s free summer meals program that provides food to any child younger than 18, even if they don’t attend Englewood schools. Along with food for her two children, Bisbal picks up bags of food for a friend and mother of eight who stays home with her newborn.
Having access to free meals has been huge, said Bisbal, whose dollars are stretched thin as inflation continues to worsen. But with a recent decrease in federal funds for free meal programs, school districts in Englewood and Littleton are likely to go from serving thousands this summer to just hundreds.
For the past two years, Congress has boosted school meal funding, which has allowed districts across the country to offer free food — breakfast and lunch — to children universally throughout the school year. Nationwide, an estimated 10 million more children received free meals under the program, which had previously been limited to income-eligible students.
But for many districts, universal free meals have now ended after Congress failed to include billions in funding for the program in its $1.5 trillion 2022 budget. Free summer meals, another program that was able to greatly expand with Congress’ support, will be forced to shrink its outreach to just low-income areas following the funding cutoff.
For districts like Englewood and Littleton Public Schools, it means having to contend with feeding fewer students as the rules around who can receive free and reduced food tightens.
Nicole Withee, who coordinates Englewood’s free and reduced school meal program, said it comes at a time when more and more families feel financial stress.
“The cost of living is skyrocketing, people have lost jobs during the pandemic and families are just in a real sensitive spot,” Withee said. “Those free meals were essential to kids' success in schools.”
Less federal funding may increase food insecurity
The news that funding for universal meals was ending came as a shock to Withee.
While attending a conference in mid-March in Washington, D.C., Withee and her colleagues were told that Congress had failed to reach an agreement to include billions in COVID-related aid in its latest spending bill. Free meals were now off the table.
Jessica Gould, director of nutrition services for Littleton schools, was at that same conference and — when the news broke — she, Withee and other colleagues kicked their advocacy into high gear, meeting with lawmakers on Capitol Hill to see if the outcome could be changed.
Read more: Littleton Public Schools staffer took the food-insecurity fight to Congress
The vote came down mainly along party lines, with most Republican lawmakers voting against including COVID aid in the spending bill. Though Gould said the program “had support in Colorado” among Republicans and Democrats, it wasn’t enough to reverse Congress’ decision.
“Food is a basic need, and our kids shouldn’t be caught in this political battle that is happening,” Gould said.
Before the pandemic, families who wanted to enroll their children in the free and reduced program had to meet a certain income threshold and fill out an application to get approved, a process that Withee said is “cumbersome on the families and cumbersome on the district.”
With Congress’ funding, districts like Englewood and Littleton were able to waive the application process, providing free meals for all students.
According to Withee, Englewood schools — a district of about 3,000 students — was able to serve around 20,000 more meals, a 15% increase, this past school year compared to the school year before the pandemic began. Without the universal free meals, the district will likely see a more than 15% drop in the meals it serves this coming school year, according to Withee.
Districts were also able to feed thousands more through their summer meal program, which was allowed to expand under pandemic-era federal guidelines. Before COVID, schools were limited to just providing summer meals in low-income areas. But for the past two years, districts have received enough federal funding to distribute food beyond just those areas.
Gould said Littleton schools went from serving meals at just two sites to 25, with an increase of 400 average meals per day before COVID to 3,000 over the past two summers.
This summer, the district is forced to return to just two sites for food distribution, meaning it will likely go from delivering 3,000 to 400 meals per day.
With universal meals, Gould said the Littleton district — made up of about 15,000 students — saw about 3,000 more students receive a breakfast or lunch this school year compared to the years before the pandemic.
“It breaks my heart to know that we just can’t operate the way that we were, and there are, guaranteed, families that are impacted by that,” Gould said.
Taken together, the end of universal meals and tightening of summer food distribution could result in a rise in food insecurity not just in Englewood and Littleton but nationwide.
“We’re going to feel the impacts of it now,” said Joel McClurg, policy and communication manager for Hunger Free Colorado, a food advocacy group. "In every community conversation I am having, I feel so much anxiety from community members."
In Arapahoe County, where the two districts serve a combined 18,000 students, food insecurity is on the rise. According to county spokesperson Luc Hatlestad, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — or SNAP — users in the county have increased from 25,032 in March 2021 to 27,218 this March. SNAP was formerly known as food stamps.
Food bank organizers have also cited an increase in people coming to them for food.
Todd McPherson, director of development for Integrated Family Community Services — one of the largest food banks in the Denver metro area and located near Englewood — said between January and May, the food bank is expected to have served more than 27,000 people. That’s a 111% increase from the same time last year when the food bank served about 24,300 people, according to McPherson.
Read more: More money. Less food. Greater demand: Inflation hits metro-area food banks
Universal meals improve students’ wellbeing, avoid stigma
For Englewood and Littleton students, the effects of having universal meals have been noticeable.
“They would come in excited in the morning; they would go to class happier," Withee said.
Along with better academic performance, Gould said studies have shown major social and emotional benefits for students who have been fed at school over the past two years.
She’s constantly reminded of something a district social worker told her about a student who, while eating one of his first free breakfasts, said, “this is the first time in a long time when I have felt full going to school.”
For students living in food-insecure households, school can be where they get most of their daily food and nutrition. Ending the need for applications and providing free food universally also helps reduce the stigma of food insecurity, Gould said.
“There are students that have a need for food … and that can be very uncomfortable when all of your peers don’t have that need,” Gould said. “Those kids who may not have wanted to grab a lunch because they didn’t want their peers to know they needed it, they came, and they ate and they nourished themselves.”
A return to applications could also shut the door on many families in need, according to McClurg. Families with sensitive immigrant or documentation statuses may be dismayed from filling out an application, he said. And families who do aren’t guaranteed they'll be approved.
McClurg said the “means-based” approach of the applications, which requires families to meet a certain income threshold, means that families making even a dollar more than what is required would be ineligible for any free and reduced food.
“By making that extra dollar, you’re missing out on hundreds of meals per year, maybe even thousands,” McClurg said. “How devastating for a family.”
According to Withee, a family of four has to make less than $49,025 to qualify for reduced-price meal benefits and even less to qualify for free benefits.
Another concern for nutrition advocates as the 2022-23 school year approaches is families incurring meal debt.
“Not all of our families know that we will go back to charging based on status,” Gould said, adding that Littleton schools will still serve students food but a family that can't pay upfront may go in debt to the district to cover that cost.
And as inflation continues, Gould said the district is taking on more costs — from raising staff pay to meeting the increased price of food — that may force schools to charge more for breakfasts and lunches.
“We don’t know what we’re looking at when we go into next year,” Gould said.
Lacking a federal solution, Colorado may try to bring back universal free meals to schools statewide this November when voters will be asked to fund a $100 million program. HB22-1414 will ask voters to limit tax deductions for Coloradoans earning $300,000 per year or more to raise funds for universal free school meals.
Still, the language of the bill is complex and implementing the program could be a challenge for districts, said Gould, who believes the proposal is “not a one-stop-shop” but is “creating the right conversation” around how to get free food to children.
Ultimately, Gould and Withee said it will take renewed federal support for districts to deliver for their students.
“It should be free meals for all forever; it shouldn’t just be a waiver,” Withee said.
“Until the government realizes that our kids matter and their educational success matters and part of that is having access to these meals," Gould said. "We just have to get food to kids."