PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – For the last two years, students in schools across the country have enjoyed meals for free thanks to federal funding that was allocated early on in the pandemic. 

However, those funding waivers expired in June, and the reality of once again paying for school lunches could come as a surprise to some families. 

In the Hillsboro School District, Executive Director of Nutrition Services Nathan Roedel is already preparing for some confusion. 

“Inevitably, we probably will be dealing with communication challenges with determining eligibility of who can and cannot get meals at no cost,” he said. 

The district has been sending out postcards and back-to-school packets, trying to remind families that if they’re eligible for free lunches, they need to fill out an application. It’s up to parents to submit the paperwork. 

Thanks to legislation passed in 2019, Oregon families with incomes up to 300% of the federal poverty level are eligible for free and reduced-price school meals. Previously, only families who earned up to 185% of the federal poverty level qualified due to the federal income eligibility guidelines.  

“So now, for example, a household of four can be making upwards of $80,000 a year and still be eligible for meals at no cost,” Roedel said. “So Oregon’s in a great spot to help those that might be on that margin of needing help with meals.” 

Free and reduced lunch household income eligibility
This chart shows federal free and reduced lunch eligibility and Oregon eligibility. (Courtesy Hillsboro School District)

There are some school districts in Oregon, like the Woodburn School District, that offer meals to students every day at no cost. Hillsboro is not one of those districts. 

Roedel suggests parents look at the income eligibility rules posted online to see if they can apply for free or reduced lunch. If they do not qualify, but still need help feeding their children, Roedel suggests families see if they qualify for Women, Infants and Children or other food services

Parents should also be aware that a bill passed during the pandemic restricts school officials’ ability to talk to students about their meal bills or lunch balance. Parents and guardians will need to monitor their student’s account to make sure they have an adequate balance, so they don’t receive a bill. 

Roedel said families had been very appreciative of the free meals during the pandemic. The district would regularly get comments about how grateful families were. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service has a list of questions and answers posted online about the expiration of the free lunch program. The Q&A includes information about other food benefits families might be eligible for.