Wichita students walk through a lunch line picking up meals provided by the school district.
Food service aides at Buckner Performing Arts Elementary School work students through the lunch line during Wichita's winter semester. Credit: (Rafael Garcia/The Beacon)

USD 259 will no longer offer universal free meals to students and will be increasing their lunch prices in the upcoming 2022-2023 school year.

The move comes after the federal government’s failure to extend a COVID-era program that allowed public schools to serve free meals without families needing to report their income.

Before the pandemic, Wichita schools operated under a system that allowed parents to apply for free or reduced-cost meals. USD 259 will be using this same system once again, but this time it’s only for lunches. 

“We as a department, and approved by the district, will provide free breakfast for all students,” said Director of Nutrition Services David Paul in a phone interview. “Although we can’t do lunches, everyone is going to eat free breakfast this year.” 

The district does not expect complete reimbursement from the government for offering free breakfasts. However, Paul said they expect enough kids will already qualify for free meals to offset the costs. 

Another major change to Wichita school lunches is a price increase of 25 cents per meal. Elementary school lunches will now cost $2.60; middle school lunches will cost $2.75; and high school lunches will cost $2.90. The change was approved 6-0 by the school board on May 23.

“If you compare the time, the effort, the gasoline, the nutritional value of school meals versus the meals that are brought from home, it’s an incredible value, especially when they’re getting breakfast for free,” Paul said. 

Challenges for Wichita school meals

The price increase was due to a few factors. After being subject to price capping for a number of years, Paul said USD 259 fell behind other districts in its meal prices. The other major reason was increasing food costs across the country. 

“Everyone goes to the grocery store and everyone knows that if you used to spend $120 for a two-person household, you are now spending $140, $160 or more,” Paul said. 

Those price increases affect the supply chain that stocks school cafeterias as well. Depending on what food providers are selected to work with USD 259 and what future agricultural setbacks occur, Wichita could see a decrease in food supply. 

The Beacon previously reported on a worker shortage that was affecting the school district lunch program. Last summer, USD 259 only had around 300 of the 425 people that it needed to be fully staffed. The shortage meant some food service employees had to fill in at other locations. 

This year, the gap has decreased. Paul said the district had roughly 65 positions that needed to be filled. While better than last year, the goal of 425 still hasn’t been met. 

The district has plans to smooth out the hiring process and improve the retention of applicants, including introducing a rolling interview system. 

How to qualify for free and reduced-cost meals

To meet eligibility for free and reduced-cost meals, the U.S. Department of Agriculture uses a formula based on the federal income poverty line. For reduced-cost meals, the poverty line amount is multiplied by 185 percent. Any family that falls below that level qualifies for a reduced price  for school lunches. 

For free school meals, the poverty line amount is multiplied by 130 percent. 

The form also takes into account family size and the frequency of paychecks a parent receives.  For example, if a family of three has an income of $29,000 a year, they qualify for free meals provided by the school. However, if a family of two has an income of the same amount, they only qualify for reduced-cost meals. 

“All of the income applications are subject to verification,” Paul said. “USDA requires us to verify a minimum of 3 percent of our applications.” 

The form is available throughout the school year starting in July, allowing parents who have a sudden change of income to apply when the need arises. This year, the form will be attached to other applications available during the enrollment process. All parents are encouraged to fill out the form.  

“It is critically important for the families as well as for the district’s overall budget,” said Susan Willis, chief financial officer for USD 259, in a phone interview. “Families get the benefit of the free and reduced meals but also free and reduced fees. So, there are huge benefits to filling out those forms.” 

The full USDA free and reduced-cost meal qualifications chart can be found here.

Free summer meals will continue 

For the rest of summer, families will still be able to pick up free meals until the end of July at any of these pickup locations.

Locations stay open about 30 minutes. While it may not be free next year, the district plans to continue offering pickup meals next summer.

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Trace Salzbrenner is a community journalist for The Wichita Beacon. Follow him on Twitter @RealTraceAlan.