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Universal free school meals ending: How that impacts Tucson school districts

Universal free school meals ending: How that impacts Tucson school districts
Posted at 4:25 PM, Apr 28, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-28 19:25:04-04

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — Since the beginning of the pandemic, all American students age 18 and younger got free meals at school. This benefitted thousands of Tucson families, especially those that don’t normally qualify for these free meals.

“It was one less thing to worry about at a time when there were so many worries,” said Jennifer Anderson, Tucson mother.

Anderson has three children enrolled in the Vail School District. For her family, free school meals provided some peace of mind in the chaos of the pandemic.

“My kids would talk about actually eating at school," Anderson said. "I have a high schooler who he was eating breakfast. Which sometimes it was hard for me to get him to eat breakfast before walking out the door.”

Anderson does not meet income requirements to qualify for free meals outside the universal program. If Congress doesn't act by June, families like hers will pay the price.

“We definitely have a high need in our community and then you add the pandemic on top of that,” said Lindsay Aguilar, Food Services Director for TUSD.

Some schools in the Tucson Unified School District will continue to provide free meals for another two years. That’s because 60 of TUSD’s 88 schools qualify for a different federal program known as the Community Eligibility Provision, also called CEP.

“The percentage of students attending those schools that receive snap benefits is high enough to qualify the whole school to receive free meals,” Aguilar said.

But some districts, like Vail, don't have any schools that qualify for CEP.

"My kids weren’t going to go without food," Anderson said. "But there’s a lot of kids that are.”

If the program isn't extended, universal free meals will end by the 2022 to 2023 school year.