Parents who apply for free or reduced meals could save as much as $1,500 a year

CLAYTON COUNTY, Ga. — Parents Katie and Jacob Raymond said they feel the squeeze of the current economy. They live with Katie’s sister, parents and their two small children.

“It costs like you know, over $1,000 a month to feed us,” Katie Raymond said.

That’s why she’s participating in Gwinnett’s Summer Meals program.

“When it comes to actually using your paycheck to pay for all the bills, at the end of the week, you barely have anything left for food.”

In March 2020, Congress approved the United States Department of Agriculture’s child nutrition COVID-19 waivers.

The waivers gave schools the funding and flexibility to provide free lunch and breakfast to all school-aged children, regardless of family income. That program ended June 2022.

In school districts like Clayton County, that waiver expiring didn’t matter because in 2012 the entire Clayton district became designated Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) schools. That’s a federal provision that allows schools with a certain percentage of lower income students to hand out free lunch and breakfast to everyone, regardless of income.

“They’re not sitting in the classroom and their tummies are rumbling and they’re having to think about food, and they can concentrate on their studies,” said Audrey Hamilton, the Director of Nutrition Services for Clayton County Schools.

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Audrey Hamilton told Channel 2 Action News she saw a huge change since pushing for all schools in her district to be under CEP. She said kids are free to focus on learning and there’s a sense of equity among students because there’s no worry about who can and cannot pay for lunch.

There are no applications for parents and the school doesn’t get stuck with a big bill if students can’t pay.

“Before we went CEP, the district had incurred over $91,000 in meal charges and so that was the other decision that made me want to push CEP forward into the school district,” Hamilton said.

But for districts that aren’t under a CEP, this year, parents will have to apply for free and reduced school lunch through the USDA’s National School Lunch Program (NSLP).

“Schools don’t have that option that they have for the last couple years just to go ahead and feed everyone who was in the line and get reimbursed by the federal government. That application is just really important,” said Cindy Long, the USDA Food and Nutrition Service Administrator.

Even though the Raymonds think they may not be eligible for free or reduced lunch through the National School Lunch Program, they choose to apply. They know firsthand just how nice it is not to have to worry about the first two meals of the day.

“It makes you think if you’re going to have to go out and find a second job just to be able to put the things you need on the table,” said Jacob Raymond.

“People are not willing to say that they’re struggling,” Katie Raymond said. “But if there’s something like this that they can do and be discreet about it, and if they want to be they can and it’s still like blesses their home.”

School breakfast and lunch prices vary from district to district. You can find your school prices and the form to fill out for free and reduced meals on your school district’s website.

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