Idaho’s count of youth who qualify for free-and-reduced-priced lunch dropped nearly 7 percent in the last year.
That doesn’t necessarily mean Idaho families are doing better economically.
State and local education leaders estimate that the numbers are down because fewer families filled out free-and-reduced lunch applications in the 2020-21 school year — because they didn’t have to.
Most of Idaho’s districts fed all students for free this year under special waivers granted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture during the pandemic. Families didn’t need a free-and-reduced lunch application to qualify.
But the free-and-reduced lunch numbers have an impact outside of the lunchroom. While imperfect, they offer a critical datapoint for measuring the economic picture of families in a particular school or district. That number helps districts allocate Title I funding to bolster support for low-income children, helps the public understand school demographics, and helps schools apply for outside grants and aid.
“It’s not just for the lunch, there’s a lot of things tied to it, a lot of money tied to it,” said Wade Pilloud, superintendent of the 150-student Kootenai School District in Harrison.
Kootenai saw one of the state’s steepest drops in free-and-reduced lunch numbers this year with a 22 percent decline.
In a normal year, that could mean a lot fewer kids served free meals. But 2021-22 won’t be a normal year. State and Federal programs are still making pandemic-related exceptions to normal operations, which could largely mitigate the drop in free-and-reduced lunch numbers.
- The U.S. Department of Agriculture is extending waivers that let districts feed all students for free, so most Idaho students will again have access to free meals at school in 2021-22.
- The State Department of Education also told districts they can use old free-and-reduced lunch numbers to allocate Title I money to schools.
“I don’t think we’re going to be penalized by something that’s out of our control, especially when this is happening everywhere,” Pilloud said. “It’s not just a Kootenai thing.”
While districts are largely safe from big changes next year, the numbers suggest that returning to the traditional National School Lunch program in the future could be a challenge.
Sheila Keim, nutrition director in the Nampa School District, said schools would likely have to re-establish their free-and-reduced lunch numbers. Nampa asked parents to fill out free-and-reduced eligibility forms this year, Keim said, but fewer parents did. Going into a second year of free lunch could compound that challenge, and further skew the data.
Keim would prefer to see federal government extend free lunch indefinitely. Each year, some parents refuse to fill out free lunch forms even if they might qualify. Keim’s lunch ladies sometimes buy meals for hungry students out of their own pockets.
Pilloud says providing universal free meals has helped reduce stigma around the free food, and is helping families that wouldn’t have otherwise filled out the paperwork.
“I think that the USDA and the Biden Administration ought to just go with universal free meals and drop the paperwork that requires us to track that data to provide meals,” Keim said. “Fund it with the funds that used to be used to track all that data.”