During the pandemic, public schools were able to provide free meals to all students, regardless of income, due to federal waivers. Starting this fall, that access is going away for about half the schools in Alaska that participate in the federal school meal program.

Families attending these schools will return to pre-pandemic ways of getting school meals – apply for free or reduced price meals based on income level, or pay for them.

Jo Dawson, program manager for child nutrition programs at the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, said the transition will be difficult.

“I don’t want to undersell this. It’s going to be difficult because families who had traditionally applied are not used to applying and some won’t apply. They won’t ask for assistance,” Dawson said.

She said school sites that have traditionally charged for meals saw participation increase during the pandemic.

“Those school sites are definitely concerned at what this transition back to charging for school meals will do to their participation,” Dawson said. “You know, not only to the revenue, but for the students. Do they have the means to access those healthy meals that they have been participating in in the last two years? So it’s certainly a concern.”

Dawson said some students won’t have access to free meals because their families won’t apply or they don’t meet the income threshold. Serving all meals free to all students works well, she said, because it takes barriers away from participation.

“When all of the students partake in the school meals, it’s no longer thought of as a program that someone needs; it’s a program that someone gets. Students don’t want to be identified as needing that meal,” Dawson said.

To ease families through the transition back to pre-pandemic days, schools in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District impacted by this change are keeping the costs of meals at the same rates.

“We were very intentional in not increasing our meal prices for this coming year,” said Katherine Gardner, Mat-Su school district associate superintendent who oversees its food service operations.

For elementary schools, breakfast costs about $2.25 and lunch $3.75. At the middle and high schools, breakfast costs $2.75 and lunch $4.75 – the same as pre-pandemic rates.

“We’re very mindful of the increased costs that we’ll have in purchasing goods, purchasing food and supplies. But we also recognize that the lower we can keep those prices, the more access students have to those meals,” Gardner said.

Read the full article about universal school meals by Lisa Phu at The 74.