The Reality of School Starting: No More Free Lunches?

Christy S. Martin, Ed. D

School starts early here in East Tennessee and this week was its beginning. While school has barely started in my community, one thing is evident. There are no free lunches.

Social media has repeatedly warned parents and the community that funding for free lunches has disappeared. Public schools have been serving all students free meals since the COVID-19 pandemic first disrupted K-12 education. In March 2022, Congress rejected calls to keep up the federal funding required to sustain that practice and left that money out of a US$1.5 trillion spending package that President Joe Biden signed into law on March 11, 2022. Feed after feed gave information that to have free lunch, parents would have to apply for and be approved for it. Yesterday that shocking reality took hold.

Districts are short teachers, bus drivers, assistants, maintenance workers, etc., but the loudest complaints voiced were that students now had to pay for lunch. Some of the outcry came from students themselves. High schoolers indicated they watched as some went hungry. That isn’t exactly true. Students who cannot pay and have not yet been approved are all given a sandwich lunch with chips, fruit, and milk. It does single them out as having no money to buy food. Most high schoolers would rather be hungry.

I do applaud the concern felt by the young people for their peers but the reality of how lunches are paid for seems to be a mystery for them as well as their parents. School lunches are a taxpayer federally funded program, even though it is monitored and carried out by local districts. In my district, high school lunch is $3.00, breakfast is $1.75. To put that in practical terms a high school student needs at least $5.00 a day for school food. To add to the misery, some of our schools that were considered high poverty are now no longer eligible for 100 percent free lunches as they were in the past. A bit of a misnomer as the community isn’t richer, but the food insecurity will be more prevalent. That $5.00 a day for food that parents had not worried about in the last two years is now a tougher bite than ever out of their budgets.

Add school supplies to that dollar amount and likely school clothes and this is a tough budget month for parents. Districts are feeling it too. The CARES Act that gave money to schools to use at their discretion to relieve the effects of the pandemic must be obligated by September 30 of this year. If that influx of money told us anything it is that our schools need more funding. Districts used it for bonuses for underpaid support staff, facility repairs, technology upgrades, and instructional supplies. The lack of funding will be felt universally in public schools all over the country. Sadly, it will be felt the most by those kids large and small and teachers and other staff in schools and classrooms everywhere.

School supplies were on sale this past weekend and we had a school supply tax-free event as well. I bought dozens of boxes of crayons and glue sticks to deplete the reserves of one of our highest poverty schools. I suspect that as the school year progresses, meals may be only one of the many things that are in short supply in our community’s greatest resource, its public schools. I urge all who love children and believe in public education to support them now more than ever. They need your lobbying voice for funding, they need your support in supplies for their children, and they need your hands as volunteers.

As a nation, education is left to the states to monitor and support and control. Every state requires education either in its public or private schools or at home. If we require them to attend school, the least we can do is feed them and fund them adequately. In my budgeting at home, where and on what I spend my money is an indication of my priorities. Should that not also be true for our schools? I agree with the kids and the parents. No child should be hungry at school.


About the author

Christy Martin recently retired after more than 35 years as an educator K-12 and post-secondary as well as several years as a coordinator of programs for youth aging out of foster care. She writes about what she knows from experiences in education and social services. Christy welcomes comments on her articles. Communicate with her via email at She can also be found on Christy Martin | FacebookChristy S. Martin (@ChristySMartin1) / Twitter, and (4) Christy Martin, Ed.D. | LinkedIn.

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