The nonprofit Youthprise provided free snacks to children in the Franklin Library in July 2022. When students go back to school, they'll need to fill out a form to qualify for free meals. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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When students go back to school this year, they’ll notice a change in the cafeteria: School meals are “back to normal.”

For the past two years, schools have made free meals available to all students—no questions asked. That came about through a federal law to address the COVID-19 pandemic. This law helped families save money and time, and helped make sure students had access to nutritious meals—even when everything else was uncertain.

But now, funding for that program has ended.

“It’s been really wonderful to see all of the important ways that schools have stepped up in the last two years to address this,” said Leah Gardner, the policy director of Hunger Solutions Minnesota, a St. Paul–based advocacy group. Gardner also coordinates the Hunger-Free Schools Minnesota campaign. “Unfortunately, the funds aren’t there.”

So this year, school meals will look more like they did before the pandemic. That means every family needs to fill out a form every year to qualify for free meals.

Here’s what you need to know.

How will school meals be different this year?

Free meals will still be available for families below a certain income. But you need to fill out a form to apply (except in a few circumstances—more on that in a bit). If you don’t qualify, you may have to pay for school meals or pack a lunch.

“We’re returning back-to-normal school breakfast and lunch operation,” said Lynn Broberg, assistant director of nutrition services at St. Paul Public Schools. At St. Paul Public Schools, she said, that means all students will still receive free breakfast. (That’s true in some other districts too, including Minneapolis Public Schools.) 

Schools that served free lunch to all students before the pandemic—including 38 in the St. Paul district—will continue to do so, under a program called the Community Eligibility Provision. That means enough students qualify for free and reduced-price meals that the school provides them to all students for free.

But for most schools, families will have to qualify on an individual basis by filling out a form.

What do I need to do before school starts to make sure my child can receive free meals?

Fill out an educational benefits form to apply for free meals for your child. This form should be available through your school district, both online and in paper copies. If you fill out this form before September 2, you can also qualify for $435 in summer pandemic food benefits. Even though summer is over, you can still use that funding on groceries.

If you miss the September 2 deadline for grocery money, you can still apply for free meals during the school year. But the benefits won’t be retroactive. That means you might be charged for some school meals before your application is processed.

“We’re concerned that it could be on a student’s first day of school that they realize that they need to pay and they don’t have any money in there,” Gardner said. “This could still be a shock to families that they’re not prepared for.”

What kinds of questions does the form ask?

The form will ask about your household size and your household income.

It sounds simple, but some families find that the form has been written in a difficult, technical way, Broberg said. If anyone in St. Paul Public Schools has trouble, you can call St. Paul Nutrition Services for help at 651-603-4950. Throughout the state, you can also call or text the Minnesota Food HelpLine—a program of the nonprofit Hunger Solutions Minnesota—at 888-711-1151. Interpreter services are available in Spanish, Somali, Hmong, and other languages. School districts really want to see all eligible families apply for support and they welcome calls.

Is the form available in multiple languages?

Yes, but availability varies by school district. In St. Paul, the online application is available in English, Spanish, Somali, Hmong, and Karen. The paper form is available in all of those languages except Karen. 

In Minneapolis, the online form is available in Armenian, Burmese, Chinese, English, French, Korean, Spanish, Russian, and Vietnamese. Hmong and Somali forms are available too, but only in paper applications.

Do my children and I have to be U.S. citizens?

No. Citizenship is not a requirement. And your forms will stay with your school district, Broberg said, not with other state or federal government agencies.

Are there any other benefits to filling out the form?

Yes, there are benefits for both you and your school. If you qualify for educational benefits, including free and reduced price meals, you will also qualify for other benefits, including:

  • Metro Transit Assistance Program, in which all members of the household can receive rides for $1
  • Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, which allows families to receive high-speed internet for $10/month 
  • The Federal Communications Commission’s Affordable Connectivity program, which provides a $100 credit toward a laptop, tablet, or computer, as well as up to $30 per month for home internet services
  • Waived fees for tests like the ACT and SAT
  • Scholarships and discounts at some child care providers and summer camps

If you qualify for these benefits, your school will also receive additional funding. Those funds can help the school pay for teachers, social workers, librarians, nurses, school counselors, field trips, and technology.

“A lot of families that do complete it are surprised to find out that they do qualify, so we do encourage all families to complete the application,” Broberg said.

Even if your school provides free meals to all students through the Community Eligibility Provision, filling out this form can qualify you for other benefits and help your school receive funding.

If you know you don’t qualify, because your family income is too high—you can check that in the table below—it still helps your school if you fill out the form, Broberg said. That way, the district won’t have to spend time texting and calling you: Staff can focus on other families who might need more help. In St. Paul, there’s a box on the form you can check to say you are NOT applying for benefits. In that case, you can just provide your students’ names without income information.

“If they know that they don’t qualify, we really encourage them to complete an application utilizing that ‘No, I don’t want to apply’ checkbox,” Broberg said.

Might my student automatically qualify for free meals?

Maybe. If your family receives benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also called SNAP, your child should receive free school meals without having to fill out a form.

There’s another change this year, too. If your child is enrolled in Medicaid, she will now automatically qualify for free meals. That’s because Minnesota is participating in a special pilot program with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Governor Tim Walz and Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan estimate this will make free meals available to another 90,000 kids.

“As a child who relied on free and reduced-price lunch and a lifelong advocate for children and families, I know how much access to meals at school means to families across Minnesota,” Flanagan said August 15 in a press release. “This is the kind of government innovation that will lift the burden on families and bring more resources to communities—especially our kids.”

If your student automatically qualifies, your school already has the information they need and you do not need to fill out the form. But it doesn’t hurt to fill out the form just to be sure.

What income levels qualify for free meals?

Here’s a handy chart to help you know whether you are eligible:

How will mealtime look different in the cafeteria?

Last year, schools just needed to count the number of students receiving meals. This year, they need to track meals to specific student accounts. That may mean your student needs to scan a lunch badge or enter a student ID number (sometimes called a PIN).

That number is linked to a personal account that either provides free meals or deducts from your paid balance. The process will be the same for all children, regardless of whether they receive free meals. In St. Paul, that will mean every child enters a PIN number before lunch. 

“We've gone past the forms of stigma that there used to be around people having a different colored lunch ticket,” Gardner said. “Pretty much every student is going to be asked to identify themselves with some kind of number.”

Will this application process mean some families miss out on free meals?

Unfortunately, yes. Some families might miss out because they don’t fill out the paperwork. And others may have benefitted from extra help during the pandemic, but may now be over the income limits.

“The thing that's so unfortunate about the timing of that federal relief going away is that almost all of us can understand the sticker shock we're seeing at the grocery store,” Gardner said. “In many cases, districts are raising their prices as a result, so the price of school meals is going up. At the same time, families are still struggling.”

If you need help filling out a form to receive free meals for your child, call or text the Minnesota Food HelpLine at 888-711-1151. Interpreter services are available in Spanish, Somali, Hmong, and other languages.

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.