More Iowa City students eligible for reduced-price lunches

The Iowa City Community School District’s 2022-23 enrollment report showed more students are qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch programs and meal eligibility following the COVID-19 pandemic.

Virginia Russell, News Reporter

More Iowa City K-12 public school students qualified for free and reduced-price lunches this year. Officials said the increase in qualifications could be because of the expiration in June 2022 of a free lunch policy during the height of the pandemic.

Iowa City school students who use free and reduced-price lunches increased 1.1 percent, 5,564 to 5,953 students, from the 2022-23 school year, according to the district’s 2022-23 enrollment report:

  • The number of elementary school students who qualify increased from 2,950 to 3,390 from the 2021-22 school year.
  • The number of middle school students who qualify increased from 775 to 861 from the 2021-22 school year.
  • The number of high school students who qualify increased from 1,528 to 1,612 from the 2021-22 school year.

This uptick in eligibility is likely due to the COVID-19 pandemic when the U.S. Department of Agriculture allowed free lunches to students no matter a family’s income. The policy expired in June 2022 after multiple Iowa lawmakers made multiple attempts to extend it.

Economic impacts on families and guideline changes may have played a role as well, district Nutrition Services Director Alison Demory said.

“They did widen the income guidelines a little bit, meaning you could make a little more money and still qualify for free or reduced meals,” Demory said, “so that might be one piece.”

All school lunch programs are federal programs overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and subsidized by federal dollars. Qualifications are determined on income and the number of people in a household, Demory said.

Iowa City student’s benefited from the free lunches for two and a half years from March 2020 through the end of the 2021-22 school year.

“When COVID first started, we had the Grab and Go meals where we handed out meals at the curb,” Demory said. “Then as kids transitioned back to school, we did both Grab and Go meals along with meals in the school, and all those meals were free.”

During this time, Demory said, it was easier to feed more students and the number of students eating school meals daily rose.

“We want to feed kids, and so when we had those free meals, it was wonderful,” Demory said. “When we took away all those barriers, we served 200 percent more breakfast meals than we had when they were being charged by status.”

After multiple attempts to contact the Iowa City Community School District, the district declined to comment.

Demory said because families were accustomed to this free program, returning to the old model proved difficult to understand.

The district notified families of this shift at the end of last school year and kept in communication through the summer. It also hosted how-to events in district neighborhoods to help get applications for free and reduced lunch submitted.

Online applications for free and reduced meals are available for Iowa City. Des Moines, Indianola, Ankeny, and Southeast Polk districts also have eligibility.

“We did everything we could through email and different means of communication to let families know,” Demory said.

As for the possibility of free meals again, Demory does not anticipate a return to the program. She said she attributes legislation as the cause of this change.

“Grassley and Ernst and Miller-Meeks, none of them voted on a federal level to continue free meals for the school, so I have little reason to believe that the state of Iowa would either,” Demory said.

However, Demory said she wants families to know that the number one goal of the programs is to make sure students are properly fed, regardless of qualification.

 “I don’t think anybody can deny that students learn better,” Demory said. “We try to nourish minds. That’s what we want to do.”