Since the start of the pandemic, El Paso students have been able to eat breakfast and lunch at no cost. That’s slated to change next school year if Congress doesn’t take action — and soon.

School nutrition waivers that cover meals for all students regardless of income expire in June. Congress didn’t extend them when it passed its federal spending bill last month, but a bipartisan group of senators is pushing to preserve the benefits for another year as part of a COVID-19 relief bill being debated this week.

Ninety percent of public school districts nationwide took advantage of the U.S. Department of Agriculture waivers to offer universal free meals to students, including El Paso County districts.

Though not every El Paso district has seen a boost in the number of meals served, area food service directors say universal free meal programs have multiple benefits beyond mere participation numbers.

When anyone can eat for free, it reduces the stigma associated with receiving free or reduced-price meals, especially for high school students who have the option of eating off campus, said Laura Duran, director of Food and Nutrition Services at the El Paso Independent School District.

“It’s wonderful because there’s not that stigma of only the kids that can’t afford to go out to lunch …  have to eat (in the cafeteria),” Duran said.

Prior to the pandemic, students qualified for free lunch if their families earned at or below 130% of the federal poverty line. That’s approximately $34,000 for a family of four. Select campuses were able to provide free meals for all students if at least 40% of their students qualified for free or reduced meals.

With the new waivers, EPISD has seen an increase in the number of students eating breakfast and lunch at many of the 22 schools that didn’t already offer universal free meals. Duran pointed to two West Side campuses — Hornedo Middle School and Franklin High School — as serving more meals today compared to before the pandemic.

A Socorro Independent School District cafeteria worker serves lunch. (Courtesy of SISD)

Alan Crawford, director of Child Nutrition Services at the Ysleta Independent School District, has seen many families take advantage of the free meals.

“With everything that’s going on, and food shortages … it’s been a beneficial thing for a lot of people as they get back on their feet,” Crawford said.

Though the Socorro Independent School District hasn’t seen a noticeable increase in the number of students eating on campus, having all students covered under the federal waivers has reduced the time staff previously spent collecting paperwork to qualify students for free or reduced meals, said Shelley Chenausky, director of Child Nutrition Services. And, she said, families no longer have to worry about whether there is money in their student’s lunch account or unpaid lunch debt.

Through the waivers, Socorro ISD has also been able to continue serving free curbside meals for anyone age 18 and under at 19 campuses. These grab-and-go meals are aimed at children who may be too young to enroll in the district or students who are home sick, Chenausky said.

Since August 2021, Socorro has served almost 72,000 breakfasts and about 122,500 lunches through these curbside sites.

Universal free school meal programs have outsized benefits for Latino students, said Amelie Ramirez, director of the Institute for Health Promotion Research at UT Health San Antonio. Nearly half of the nation’s Latino households — 44.7% — are food insecure, she said, meaning they “are without reliable access to a sufficient quality of affordable and nutritious food.”

Some Latino families may be reluctant to participate in federal nutritional supplement programs due to concerns about providing personal information, Ramirez said.

“(Universal free meals) gives (Latino students) access to have free, healthy options that are lessening their chances of having health complications later in life,” she said.

A bipartisan group of senators is pushing to extend these waivers through September 2023 as part of the $10 billion COVID relief bill Congress is negotiating ahead of its April recess. Neither of Texas’ two U.S. senators were listed as co-sponsors of the Support Kids Not Red Tape Act introduced March 31.

A spokesperson for Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said the senator is still reviewing the bill. A spokesperson for Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, did not respond to a request for comment.

“I believe that it would benefit all children throughout the nation … it will continue to provide that healing for our families who have been so impacted by COVID financially,” Chenausky said of the impact of extending universal free meals for another school year. “They can use their resources in other ways to continue to heal.”

Molly Smith has been a reporter for the El Paso Times and The (McAllen) Monitor. She’s covered education, criminal justice and local government. A Seattle native, she’s lived in Texas since 2014, with...

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