Once a pandemic lifeline, universal access to free lunch could end

Throughout the pandemic, Donna Martin’s lunches have been a lifeline for the public school students in rural Burke County, Georgia, where she serves as nutrition director. One in five citizens lives in poverty in this east Georgia county of roughly 25,000, half an hour south of Augusta. Nearly two-thirds of the district’s 4,100 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch (meaning that family incomes fall below 185 percent of the federal poverty line).

Martin says the meals her staff prepares (breakfast, lunch, and even dinner) are often the healthiest—and sometimes the only—food her students see each day. “Our kids are food insecure, and they’re hungry,” she said. “But we offer amazing food, and we offer a lot of choices every day.” On the Monday we spoke, the menu included turkey tetrazzini, broccoli, and carrot sticks with homemade ranch dressing, and made-from-scratch strawberry muffins. “And we have ‘fruit-mallow,’ which is one of my favorites,” Martin said. “It’s fruit cocktail, but it’s got extra cherries and marshmallows, which the kids really like.” 

But providing nutritious, tasty meals like these could soon get a lot harder for Martin and her staff, who’ve already been scrambling to manage supply chain disruptions and soaring costs as the pandemic has worn on. “Our food prices have gone up 25 percent,” Martin says.

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