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What it means for your student as free school lunch waiver ends
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Lyman Hall Elementary students eat their lunch outdoors Monday, Sept. 14, 2020, on picnic tables donated to the school. - photo by Scott Rogers

A pandemic-era waiver allowing public schools to provide free meals to all students, regardless of family income level, is set to expire at the start of the school year. 

But that doesn’t mean your kids will go hungry if they don’t have money on their account or they haven’t submitted the paperwork to qualify for free or reduced lunch. 

“Students may charge up to $10,” said Cheryl Jones, director of nutrition for Hall County Schools. But even if a student has reached that charge limit, she added, “We don't deny students a meal, and we don't take food or the tray away from a student.” 

Jones said about 55% of their students qualify for free or reduced lunch. 

That number is 69% in Gainesville City Schools, where school meals will still be free for all students. That is because the school system is classified under Provision 2 of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's school meal programs, which means students “are not required to complete the free and reduced price application material or pay for meals.” The USDA reviews Provision 2 status every four years.  

Since waiving the eligibility requirement during the pandemic, the USDA, which oversees school meal programs, has seen the number of participating students skyrocket. 

During this past school year, about 30 million kids a day were getting free meals, compared to 20 million before the pandemic, said Cindy Long, administrator of the USDA Food and Nutrition Service.

At summer meal distributions, 1.3 billion meals and snacks were given out nationwide in fiscal year 2020 at a cost of $4.1 billion — an eightfold increase from the previous year in terms of meals and cost, according to the USDA.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.