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Inflation challenges school lunch assistance after federal waiver cancellation

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's waiver providing students free meals ended on June 30. Local groups that help provide assistance are seeing impacts firsthand.

TOLEDO, Ohio — The U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2020 waiver to provide free meals for students ended on June 30, and it's just another challenge amid inflation for the approaching school year.

The USDA started the waiver program when the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020.

According to Connecting Kids to Meals, 22 million kids qualify for reduced or free meals in the U.S. 

At Toledo Public Schools, nearly 9 out of 10 qualify for meal assistance, and at Washington Local Schools, 6 out of 10 students qualify.

Wendi Huntley, president of Connecting Kids to Meals, has noticed the pandemic's impact on the organization that provides free meals during the summer and after school.

"The reality is, the pandemic exposed the reality of child food insecurity and adult food insecurity," she said. "Not just in our community, but across the country."

The nonprofit helps out at schools, libraries, Boys and Girls Clubs, community centers. They are also at city pools in the summer.

Huntley said inflation means things like food, transportation, supplies and everything else cost more. So if something took a week to order, it now takes four to six weeks.

"We provide our meals on a food tray when kids sit down at the sites," she said. "The cost of those food trays has gone up over 160%."

The Toledo Lucas County Public Library is a site where youth services coordinator, Nancy Ames said programs like Connecting Kids to Meals is especially beneficial.

"Families are struggling," Ames said. "We know that in Lucas County, more than 40% of our kids live in poverty. So having access to free, nutritious food is so important. During the summer when they don't eat at school, it's even more (important)."

Ames said it doesn't just fix their appetite, but also their behavior.

"In addition, we know when kids have food to eat while they're at the library, we also see a real improvement sometimes in their behavior," she said.

Just because summer is ending soon, the mission at Connecting Kids to Meal's is not. Their after-school program starts on Aug. 22.

TPS and Washington Local both offer school meal application waivers.

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