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Food costs, federal funding changes, and supply shortages affecting Cook County & Grand Portage school lunches

Jul 26, 2022 09:53AM ● By Laura Durenberger
Photo: Anton Murygin 

By Rae Wojcik Poynter - Boreal Community Media exclusive - July 26, 2022


When the Covid-19 pandemic sent shock waves throughout the world, the federal government launched many programs to help ease some of the uncertainty for U.S. families. One area where families received help was school lunches. Thanks to a program through the USDA, all schools were able to provide school lunches to students regardless of family income. This funding took the form of a waiver for school lunch spending. But as the 2021-22 school year started to wind down, so did the time left for the federal funding, which was set to expire on June 30, 2022. As the deadline loomed, it became a cause for concern for many Cook County community members: if the funding was ending, what would that mean for school lunches during the 2022-23 school year? 

While Congress did extend the funding through the Keep Kids Fed Act, signed by President Biden on June 25, 2022, the new bill does not keep all aspects of the original pandemic funding. The new bill provides free meals for students throughout the summer and offers higher school reimbursement rates for meals for the upcoming school year. However, it also brings back costs to some families this fall: for the upcoming school year, families with lower incomes will have to start submitting paperwork for their children to receive reduced-price lunches, a requirement that has not been in place since the pandemic began. Not only does this create an extra step for families, but it will likely cause financial hardship for some families who needed the free meals the most. 

ISD 166 Superintendent Chris Lindholm said that the past year has seen many challenges when it comes to ensuring Cook County students have the nutrition they need. 

“Knowing that the federal pandemic funding was coming to an end, conversations started happening at the state level about introducing state funding for school lunches,” Lindholm said. “But the state legislative session ended with no agreement. This basically puts us back to the pre-pandemic situation. Families will have to fill out a form to apply to receive free or reduced meals.”

Lindholm said that while the USDA’s National School Lunch Program is certainly helpful to families of lower incomes, it also presents a unique challenge for Cook County. The USDA sets its qualifying income guidelines at the same rate for the 48 contiguous states. This gets tricky in places like Cook County where the cost of living is higher, and the income that families earn doesn’t stretch as far. Lindholm said this causes situations where families might barely be over the threshold for the USDA’s income guidelines, yet the higher costs of living the county make it difficult for these families to afford the full price of school lunches. 

“We highly encourage everyone to apply for the free and reduced lunches,” Lindholm said. “We want families to get the benefits they need, and the program also helps the school district receive funding.”

In addition to funding considerations, Lindholm said that this past year saw huge challenges for ISD 166’s school lunch supply. In a community Facebook group, parents of students at ISD 166 raised concerns about the quality of school lunches seeming lower than in previous school years. Lindholm said that challenges with distributors were a major factor in this issue.

“Over this last spring and summer, our biggest concern has been getting a reliable supply of food,” he said. “Food prices and supply chain issues are a huge problem, and getting food all the way up here is a challenge. We used 4-5 vendors this school year to try to get food, and we sometimes struggled to get ingredients that were unavailable or were delayed and wouldn’t get here in time. For example, just recently we opened a box of grapes that were moldy, so we couldn’t use them and had to scramble to find something else that we could use.”

The changes to the federal funding, rising food costs, and supply chain issues are affecting other schools in Cook County as well. Carmen Keyport, Director of Oshki Ogimaag Charter School in Grand Portage, said that she is currently looking into opportunities to help families afford school lunches. Keyport said that in the past they were part of the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which allows all students in a district to receive free lunches without filling out an income-based application. The CEP is available for districts with a high percentage of families who qualify for free meals. Keyport hopes that the CEP or a similar program might be able to help Oshki Ogimaag students this year.

At Great Expectations School, the Great Lunch program is funded through grants and fundraising. (This is because participating in federal programming limits food choices and introduces a significant amount of overhead, which is challenging for small schools.) Great Lunch is a nonprofit with its own board of directors, and in past years, hot lunches were prepared by parent volunteers on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. At the beginning of 2020, Great Lunch shifted to providing hot lunches five days a week with paid staff. Laura Wilson, who prepares the lunches at Great Expectations School, said that in addition to lunches, they also provide a breakfast bar available at snack time. 

“The cooking is all homemade, from scratch,” Wilson said. “We try to choose healthy ingredients, and some ingredients are even grown at the school so that the kids can learn about where their food comes from. We have a salad bar with lots of fruits and veggies, and we try to give the kids choices—kids are more likely to eat well and pick healthy options when they have choices.”

As news spread about the pandemic funding ending, several community members have asked what they can do to help. Chris Lindholm said community members can help in a few ways. 

“I’m very grateful to the community for their concern and wanting to help. First, I’d encourage everyone to pay attention to food needs outside of school,” he said. “But as far as school lunches, the easiest way to help is to make a donation to the school indicating that it’s for food, or to cover families’ accounts that are in the negative. But don’t donate food—there are laws around what kinds of food are allowed to be served in schools, which we at the school know but the community may not.”

Laura Wilson said that the rising cost of food and difficulties with supply chain issues mean that donations are especially welcome this year for Great Lunch.

“Part of education is getting healthy food to learn and grow,” she said. “I love getting to see the kids get excited about fresh food.”


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