Because many Oregon children did not have consistent access to healthy food, in 2019 the Oregon Legislature and Governor Brown dramatically increased support for free school meals with the passage of the Student Success Act. “The passage of the Student Success Act represented a collaborative commitment by the state of Oregon to expand free school meals and reduce childhood hunger,” says Dustin Melton, the Director of Child Nutrition Programs, Pupil Transportation and the Fingerprinting Unit with the Oregon Department of Education. “It builds on past state legislation and reduces hunger by significantly increasing funding for school meals for children.” The law was supposed to go into effect in 2020, but the federal government provided funding for universal school meals during the COVID pandemic and the Oregon funding was not needed until this school year.
The federal government, however, is returning this fall to its old three-tier system of free, reduced-priced and paid school meals. This means that many families that relied on universal school meals throughout the pandemic may now have to fill out an application to access free meals at school. The federal three-tier system has a negative impact on Oregon kids and their families. First, it can create stigma for those who receive free or reduced-price meals.
This can discourage kids from eating school meals. Second, a family’s income might be just above the income threshold for school meals or a simple paperwork error can prevent kids from getting the nourishing meals they need — even when a family still cannot afford school meals. This problem is severe enough that In 2017 the Oregon legislature passed a law banning shaming for school meal debt. The 2019 Student Success Act’s school nutrition provisions help mitigate the impact of the rollback of federally free school meals. One provision makes universal free meals for all students (called the Community Eligibility Provision) financially viable for more schools by supplementing federal funds with state funds. For schools that do not qualify for Community Eligibility Provision, another key provision of the Student Success Act raises the threshold of eligibility from 185 percent of the Federal Poverty Level to 300 percent, allowing many more children to qualify for free school meals.
A third program under the new law requires schools that have more than 70 percent of its students eligible for free or reduced-price meals to offer Breakfast After the Bell. Schools can design their Breakfast after the Bell program to work for the school and to increase the number of kids eating breakfast, ensuring they will be ready to learn during the school day. “These innovations are largely handled by schools, but there’s one important thing for parents to do: If you have not already been told by your school that your children will receive free meals, when your child’s school sends home a form about family income for school meals, please fill it out and make sure it gets returned,” explained Alison Killeen, Interim Co-Executive Director of Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon. “Our school district takes very seriously its responsibility to ensure that all children are fed while under our care, and the state’s Student Success Act helps fulfill that commitment,” explains Jill Cuadros, Nutrition Services Director, Eugene School District 4J. “The added funding from the state covers free meals for such a high percentage of our kids that the district is able to pay for the remaining meals out of pocket, so we can provide free meals to everyone. This is an important value for us. It means no one goes hungry.” Families can learn more about how to apply and whether they qualify for free school meals at oregonhunger.org/free-school-meals.