November 2, 2022 (PORTLAND, OR) – Community schools are at risk of losing funding this year because of challenges facing their post-COVID data collection. In a typical year, schools send home household income forms for families to fill out and return. The explicit purpose of these forms is to determine which children are eligible for free school meals. However, eligibility for additional programs is also linked to these income forms.  During the pandemic, Congress allowed all schools to make meals free to all students. This temporary waiver for free meals has ended, and schools now need families to fill out the household income forms again. Rates of return, however, are much lower than before the pandemic.

 “We’re hearing anecdotally that the rate of return on forms is much lower than before the pandemic,” says Dustin Melton, Director of Child Nutrition Programs with the Oregon Department of Education. “This means not only are children missing out on free meals, but also funding could be lost for other federal Child Nutrition Programs. For example, the Summer Food Service Program, which provides meals for kids participating in summer programs and the Child and Adult Care Food Program both use household income data from local schools to determine site eligibility,” This is affecting school districts large and small.

“The applications for free school meals have not been pouring in like they did three years ago, before the pandemic,” says Jill Cuadros, Nutrition Services Director, Eugene School District 4J. “We’re not sure why families aren’t returning the forms, but there are many possible reasons. Families have a lot to keep track of and school meals have kept changing. Many don’t realize that they are now eligible when they wouldn’t have been before. Now that free school meals are based on income again, there’s the potential for stigma that wasn’t there during the pandemic. When there were universal free school meals, it was administratively easier and we fed a lot more kids. Kids could just eat.”

“This is a big topic in the world of school meal programs,” explains Debby Webster, School Nutrition Director at Rainier School District, which has approximately 850 students. “During registration at the high school, we usually take in 30-40 applications. This year we took in three.  In general, I usually have a stack that I need to review daily and we are not getting them this year like we have in the past.”

“The most obvious purpose of these household income forms is to determine who is eligible for free meals,” says Alison Killeen, Interim Co-Executive Director of Partners for a Hunger-free Oregon. “But filling out these forms fulfills a larger purpose, namely making sure schools get needed funding.”

This is a challenging time and situation for school nutrition programs, which may require innovative solutions. The Food Research & Action Center (FRAC), a national anti-hunger organization, has recently updated its toolkit of possible approaches school districts can take

There are two different forms that families have to fill out, depending on whether their children’s school is able to offer universal free meals. Schools can tell a family which form they need to use. (If a child is currently paying for school meals, the correct form can be found online here.) If a family hasn’t filled out a form this fall, they should check in with their school.