State funding for free school meals ending; applications due May 24

Carson High School students pick up lunch in the school’s downstairs cafeteria Monday. After four years, state funding for free school meals is ending and the Carson City School District is asking families to apply for free and reduced meals before May 24.

Carson High School students pick up lunch in the school’s downstairs cafeteria Monday. After four years, state funding for free school meals is ending and the Carson City School District is asking families to apply for free and reduced meals before May 24.
Photo by Jessica Garcia.

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For the past four years, school meals in Nevada have been free to all students regardless of eligibility of free and reduced status. Unless there are any changes from the federal level, this comes to an end in two months, the Carson City School District announced Monday.

The CCSD’s Nutrition Services program is asking families to apply for free and reduced meals as state funding for free school meals ends May 30. Parents or guardians must complete an educational benefits application online before Friday, May 24. Paper forms will be available through school offices.

Elizabeth Martinez, director of nutrition services, is encouraging families to apply now. Martinez spoke from Carson High School’s downstairs cafeteria Monday as lunch began, demonstrating as student lines quickly formed why it’s so important to get applications submitted in a timely manner.

“The reason we’re getting the word out now is because if people apply for this 2023-24 school year, they’ll have a 30-day grace period in the 2024-25 school year to reapply for status so there won’t be a lapse in free and reduced lunch status for students,” she said.

Student meal status must be established during the 2023-24 school year or it will default to “full pay” until an application for the 2024-25 school year is submitted. This takes effect Aug. 19, the start of CCSD’s new year.

“I can’t tell you how much it breaks my heart,” Martinez said. “These last four years have been a dream come true for anybody in my position because all we want to do is feed kids. But unfortunately, we haven’t come to a place yet where that’s going to continue indefinitely.”

The average meal price for CCSD students varies by level. Elementary school lunches are $2.95 daily or $14.75 per week, middle school costs $3.10 per day or $15.50 per week and high school costs $3.25 per day or $16.25 per week.

Breakfast at elementary and middle schools costs $1.50 per day or $7.50 per week and costs $2.75 at high schools or $13.75 per week. Additional milk is 50 cents. Reduced prices are 30 cents for breakfast and 40 cents for lunch.

The move, however, does not affect all Carson City schools, Martinez said. In September, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it was expanding its Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) program nationwide to 3,000 more school districts in high-need areas to help decrease childhood hunger and improve student health. CEP helps by lowering food costs for families, increasing food security, reducing social stigma for students who are eating free or reduced-price meals and encourages increased participation in school breakfast and lunch programs. Schools that adopt CEP are reimbursed using a formula based on the percentage of students categorically eligible for free meals based on their participation in other programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). A list of Nevada's CEP schools is available here.

But CCSD’s Carson High, Eagle Valley Middle and Seeliger Elementary schools would have become cost-prohibitive to the district to make them financially viable as CEP, Martinez said. The district’s general fund in the long term would have suffered, and the administration already is anticipating a deficit for the 2024-25 school year.

“If you change a school to CEP, you take away reduced category reimbursement and only get free or paid reimbursement without getting any money for paid meals from families,” she told the Appeal. “If your free reimbursement doesn't equal a certain amount, then it's not financially viable to choose CEP because everyone is eating for free but you're getting the least reimbursement for a category of students.

“If we went CEP at EVMS, CHS and Seeliger, the reimbursement we got from free meals would fall very, very short of costs to produce meals and we would be forced to make that up by taking hundreds of thousands of dollars from the general fund.”

She remains hopeful there can still be a permanent legislative solution to funding universal school meals. Martinez recently returned from Washington, D.C., where she spoke with five of six Nevada representatives.

The conversation was productive but Martinez said “we’re not at that point yet” where schools are financially sustainable to provide free breakfasts and lunches as they have since COVID-19.

In June 2022, the Nevada Department of Agriculture announced the state was investing $75 million in free meals under the National School Lunch program for the 2022-23 year. An effort to extend the free meal program into 2024-25 passed the Nevada Legislature. The program would have cost $43 million per year, but Gov. Joe Lombardo vetoed the bill, encouraging districts to “design a permanent, sustainable program” in the following biennium and to “return to normalcy of pre-pandemic operations.”

Martinez said while the state has subsidized these meals with American Rescue Plan Act funds until now, she remains concerned about food insecurity for families of students with older students who might not be willing to submit their applications.

“It could be for a number of reasons — stigma,” she said. “I never realized it until this position, just how big the stigma of being poor is. And, you know, even if a student qualifies for reduced meals, we still have to cap them a $5 charge limit and give them something else, and that just breaks our hearts. That’s the worst part of the job.”

Carson High School Principal Dan Carstens said Monday continuing the access to the free meals would be beneficial to his students to maintain academic performance and access to food resources they need to stay healthy and focused in school. He said all it takes is for someone to fill out a piece of paper to keep students from experiencing food insecurity.

“I know how I feel when I’m hungry,” he said. “I get a little ‘hangry.’ Nobody likes me when I’m ‘hangry’ for some reason, and I know I’ve got to eat something. It breaks my heart for kids and to know someone won’t have that same access.”

Families are advised that starting the first day of school Aug. 19, meals must be paid for, per each student’s free, reduced or paid status. The district has provided a helpful “Frequently Asked Questions” document in English and Spanish with additional information or families can contact Nutrition Services at 775-283-2150 for CCSD or the nutrition services department within their district.


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