Lunches are no longer free but they don’t need to be a hardship

According to, 21.8 percent of kids in Marion County are eligible for the Free Lunch Program. But families need to apply to get the benefits.

According to the same site, the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is a federally assisted meal program operating in public and nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions. The Free Lunch Program (FLP) under the NSLP has been providing nutritionally balanced lunches to children at no cost since 1946. Families who meet the income eligibility requirements or who receive Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits can apply through their children’s school to receive free meals. The FLP ensures that students who may otherwise not have access to a nutritious meal are fed during the school day. This helps students remain focused and productive in school. The lunches help students meet their basic nutritional requirements when their families may not be able to consistently provide a balanced and varied diet.

Since March 2020, all school lunches have been paid for by the USDA due to COVID-19. But that practice stopped at the end of May 2022.

“While paying for school lunches is not new, it has been a while since families have needed positive balances in their lunch accounts. At the end of the 2019 – 2020 school year, an anonymous donor covered all balances owed for school lunches. So, everyone gets to start with a clean slate,” said USD 410 Superintendent Clint Corby. “You are encouraged to fill out a free and reduced meal application, which not only provides benefits to your family but also generates revenue for the school district.”

There is help available for families through the FLP program, but families have to apply in order to get it. Most district offices have the paperwork available in their offices, in the enrollment packages or online. If you aren’t sure, call your district office and ask. Here is where you can find USD 410’s application if you want to see an example of it: The paperwork is simple and does not take much time to fill out.

For those who don’t qualify, it can take some work adjusting back to packing lunches again. Here are a few simple steps to help ease the burden of it all.

  1. Have a game plan. Make a budget and a menu. Whether you are going to make the items at home or buy them pre-made at the store, having a plan of attack will help you not throw down a ton of money last minute. Considering making some of those goodies like cookies and granola bars rather than just buying all prepackaged so you can stretch your dollar. But also know what your time and energy constraints are and then plan accordingly. But have a plan.
  2. Enlist the kids to help. Don’t put it all on yourself. Can they fill the water bottle or put the packaged stuff together the night before? Could they dish out the leftovers into separate containers when putting away dinner the night before so their lunch is all ready to go the next day? Can they make their own sandwich? There has to be something they can do even if they are only in kindergarten. Give them some ownership so they are part of it. It helps them buy into the whole idea of taking a lunch more and it gets some of the work off your shoulders.
  3. Be creative. Try not to always fall back on the same options—unless that is what works. But for most families, kids get sick of the same things. So maybe instead of the same old peanut butter and jelly you do “pb and j sushi” where you spread out peanut butter and jelly on a tortilla and roll it up and cut into little “sushi bites. Look up ideas on pinterest, ask your friends on FB, ask your kids what they want or have seen their friends do, brainstorm, etc. Get the kids on board with creativity as well so they are excited.
  4. Surprise them with notes and random treats. Give your kids something to look forward to. Even the big kids enjoy the random knock-knock joke or other surprises. You can surprise your kids for free. Jot down something you like about them or a funny story from when they were little.
  5. Switch it up. Try to alternate what you do whether you throw in some leftovers or even if you can take advantage of the Sonic app or Wendy’s coupons and one day a quarter get your kid fast food. You could even use it as a reward for something and have them earn it. It will give you time to save up for it and plan and give them something to look forward to. It just helps to have something to break up the monotony of the same lunch options.

It was such a nice treat to have school lunches free of charge for so long. But losing that doesn’t mean that lunch can’t still be fun and kids can’t still eat good meals. Fill out the paperwork and see if you qualify. And if you don’t there are many great and inexpensive ideas out there if you just plan and do a little research. Have fun with it.

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