NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s pandemic-era waiver allowing school districts to provide free meals to students is ending. Most school districts in Middle Tennessee will return to pre-COVID costs for meals. However, the Metro Nashville School District will spend $15 million in federal funding to ensure all students​​ will have access to free breakfast and lunch this year.

“Dr. Battle has said she feels that this is a moral obligation for us to provide good, nutritious meals for all of our students and it was a top priority for her and for our board,” said MNPS Chief Operating Officer Maura Black Sullivan.

According to MNPS, the no-cost lunch at some schools is made possible by the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which is a federal reimbursement program that allows school districts to offer lunch at no cost to students at schools that meet criteria. The district explained that Metro Schools is using federal ESSER funds this school year to ensure all students have access to no-cost meals.

“Where you spend your money is a great statement of your values and having free and nutritious meals for all of our students so that they are ready to learn and ready to be a part of that learning community was a top priority for us,” said Sullivan.

The School Nutrition Association (SNA) praised the passage of The Keep Kids Fed Act of 2022. They said the bipartisan compromise bill supported school meal programs when federal pandemic waivers expired on June 30, including extending waivers for 2022 summer meal programs. However, SNA leaders were disappointed about the waivers ending to start the new school year.

“We are extremely disappointed Senate leaders were forced to strike a key provision to eliminate the reduced-price meal co-pay for eligible families, struggling with rising food and gas costs,” said SNA President Beth Wallace. “Throughout the pandemic, free school meals have ensured students are nourished and ready to learn. The loss of free school meals puts too many students at risk of going hungry.”

Sullivan said MNPS has tracked the benefit of being able to offer the free meals for the past two years.

“It’s definitely helped us, I believe, bring our students back,” Sullivan explained. “As you’ll begin to see with our test scores as they come out, we have been able to bring our students back to pre-pandemic levels and just not having that stress on families and on students of where that meal is coming from in the middle of the day, and always being able to just easily access food during the middle of the day to keep their brains moving and active, I believe [has] been a very vital part of that success.”

Other districts including Sumner, Williamson, Cheatham, and Wilson counties posted messages to parents, advising that free lunches for all students would be ending. Those districts, and others are encouraging families to apply for the free and reduced lunch program.

“Some parents if you had a child that may have started kindergarten during COVID you may not have understood the importance of a free and reduced lunch application because you have always received free breakfast and free lunch so starting in August those will return to full-paid. Of course, we also have the reduced program but you have to complete an application for the reduced program and also the free program,” said Wilson County Schools School Nutrition Director Tina Hutchins in a video posted to social media.

Hutchins added that their meal prices have also increased becuase of supply chain issues.

“We did have to increase pricing on breakfast and lunch. It was board approved back during the summer,” said Hutchins. “We increased $.75 on breakfast and $.75 on lunch across the board. That’s due mainly because of our supply chain. We’re having trouble getting product. Our distributer, every 30 days, they send us an increase or decrease on pricing and as you know in the grocery store, everything is increasing.”

Even though meals are now covered, MNPS urges families to apply for the program as well because it does include some other non-meal related benefits such as free ACT and LSAT programs.