Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Littleton Public Schools was able to provide on average 400 meals to students each day during its summer food program. Over the past two years, that number has grown to about 3,000. The increase represents not just a rise in demand, but the effects of unprecedented federal money flowing into schools to help feed children.
But that support is set to end this summer after Congress dropped billions in COVID relief from its latest spending bill. For LPS Director of Nutrition Services Jessica Gould, the results could be dire.
“The pandemic really opened everyone’s eyes to the fact that everyone in our schools has families and students that are hungry and do need that extra support," she said. "Just knowing that we aren’t going to have the financial support is just super hard.”
It's part of why Gould, who also serves as chair of the Public Policy & Legislative Committee for the School Nutrition Association or SNA, joined a team of advocates in Washington, D.C. recently to urge lawmakers to reconsider.
Gould, as part of her work sith SNA, has been lobbying on Capitol Hill for more food support in schools for years. When COVID-19 hit, many of the federal investments her and her colleagues had been asking for materialized.
Schools were seeing more reimbursements for the cost of their meals, especially during the summer. Meal waivers allowed any child, no matter their economic status, to eat without cost, essentially providing free meals to students at all public schools.
Those provisions were part of larger federal efforts to reduce rising food insecurity nationwide, joining a dramatic expansion of food stamp benefits and new subsidies for parents to afford food while their children were out of school, known as P-EBT.
All of it translated to a reduction in food insecurity and fewer hungry kids in the classroom. But when Congress suddenly dropped those school benefits in its $1.5 trillion omnibus bill recently, Gould and her colleagues, who were already in D.C., kicked their advocacy into high gear.
“We were very hopeful that the waivers were going to be extended,” Gould said. “It felt like we were kind of punched in the gut."
Gould and her colleagues scattered across the capital, meeting with Colorado's representatives in the Senate and House to see if anything could be salvaged. She personally met with Sen. John Hickenlooper and Rep. Diana DeGette, who she said both voiced their support for the measures.
“It didn’t matter if they were Democrat or Republican, we had support in Colorado," Gould said, though the final vote came down mainly on party lines, with most Republican lawmakers against including COVID aid in the funding bill.
“The fact that these waivers went down on party lines … that is frustrating because these are kids," Gould said.
The effects will be tangible for districts like LPS. Public schools in Colorado have long faced chronic funding concerns, and less support from the federal government will mean scaling back much of LPS' food outreach, Gould said.
With the benefits, the district saw a 22% boost in its reimbursement amounts for food from the federal government.
“Having the 22% more reimbursement has been critical for us because, as everyone knows, our gas prices are going up, our food prices are going up and we’ve increased what we’re paying our labor,” Gould said.
With that dropping to pre-pandemic amounts it's “not going to be enough to cover where our costs are," she said, adding that she expects to lose about 11 cents for every breakfast served and 62 cents for every lunch.
LPS' summer meal program, which sees buses deliver food to various schools and public spaces to feed children who are out of school, will likely go from delivering around 3,000 meals per day to about 400, Gould said.
“Hunger doesn’t know if kids are in school or not," she said. "In the summer those kids who have relied on those meal programs are still in need of nutrition."
And by once again having to make families apply for free and reduced meals, as opposed to making free meals universal, stigma around needing free food could arise.
“Kids shouldn’t have to have a stigma over if they have food or not, and unfortunately … sometimes people have associated it negatively," Gould said.
That week on Capitol Hill, Gould and other advocacy groups gave a powerful rebuke to Congress' plans, with over 130,000 statements sent to lawmakers urging them to reconsider, according to Gould.
“It was incredibly powerful to see what advocacy in action really looked like,” she said.
But with the bill signed into law by President Biden on March 15, Gould said she and her advocacy group will have to look for other ways to secure support.
"I do believe that SNA has created a really great relationship with USDA, so I hope that we continue to have conversations about how to move forward," she said.
Gould said families can also still apply for free and reduced meals through LPS this year, with the universal acceptance set to end June 30.
Ultimately, Gould hopes that by reminding lawmakers and federal agencies about the impact such programs have had, a renewed push for aid will emerge.
She was reminded of something an elementary school teacher at LPS told her recently, that one of her students had said because of free breakfasts, "this is the first time my stomach has felt full to start school”
“Not everybody knows what food insecurity feels like," Gould said. "But for those who do it’s a very real and tangible thing."
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