Most schools in Delaware County’s meals are no longer free, adding an extra stress on families

Delta High School lunch is $2.80 per day, while elementary school lunch is $2.60 per day. Breakfast is $1.50 throughout the Delaware Community School Corporation.

Lunch at Burris Laboratory School is $3.30 per day and breakfast is $2.

At Yorktown Community Schools, breakfast is $1.75, while the discounted breakfast is 30 cents. Lunch is $3.35, concession lunch is 40 cents.

At Daleville Community Schools, breakfast is $2.10 for all students, lunch is $3 for elementary school students, and lunch is $3.10 for junior and senior high students.

At Wes-Del Community Schools, elementary school lunch is $2.60 and middle school/high school lunch is $2.80.

At Cowan Community Schools, basic breakfast is $1.50 and lunch is $2.50. For Jr/Sr High School, breakfast is $1.50 and lunch is $2.70.

At Liberty-Perry Community Schools, breakfast is $2 and lunch is $3.

Meals are free for all students at Muncie Community Schools.

When Deb Huston was growing up in Muncie, Indiana, someone unrelated to her often ate dinner and stayed at her family home. From a young age, Huston’s parents did what they could to help at-risk members of the community.

Huston said her childhood instilled a passion in her from an early age. She wanted to help children have the best quality of life. This passion led her to start Panther Pantry in 2015 as a weekend backpacking program at Muncie Southside Middle School to provide families with extra food throughout the school year.

“If I can help a kid be a kid, that’s my purpose in life,” Huston said. “Hopefully when I’m gone my family will be proud. But here’s the thing: I don’t care if people know this, I don’t care. I don’t need recognition. If I could [run Panther Pantry] I would be anonymous, but I can’t. It is not about me. It’s about the kids; it’s about the volunteers.”

Huston has had some involvement with Muncie Community Schools (MCS) for 25 years. The Muncie native mused as she discussed why Panther Pantry was a dream of hers and what it means for her to be able to live that dream.

“A kid should be able to be a kid,” Huston said. “A kid shouldn’t have to worry about food, a kid shouldn’t have to worry about that…Teachers care. Schools care.”

While Panther Pantry helps families feed their children on weekends throughout the school year, school breakfasts and lunches are also free at MCS, the only public school board in Delaware County where this is the case. For comparison, from March 2020 to May 2022, all eight companies provided free meals to help families during the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, although COVID-19 is lagging behind the general public for the most part, the average annual cost of groceries for a family of four in Muncie is $7,923, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, averaging about $152 per week.

“I think even for people who have good jobs and can afford lunch, it’s difficult right now because everything is so expensive,” Alyssa Dowling said. “…I think some people are afraid to say they have problems.”

Dowling and her husband have two children at the Delaware Community School Corporation, a freshman at Delta High School and a third grader at Royerton Elementary School. She is a hairdresser and runs a salon from home while her husband is an ironworker for the union.

The Dowling family poses for a portrait in front of the David Letterman Building on campus on January 29. Jacy Bradley, DN

She said her family can afford to pay for school meals, but Dowling said a grocery bill of about $300 a week plus about $6 a day for school meals five days a week adds up, forcing her family to work on a tighter budget respectively. Before COVID-19, she said her girls didn’t eat breakfast at school but did eat lunch. While breakfast and lunch were free during COVID-19, they’ve got used to eating both at school, so they intend to keep doing that. Most days her daughters now have breakfast at home.

Dowling said her youngest daughter is more aware that school meals are no longer free because if they are free and they always have breakfast at school, she can sleep longer before the bus arrives.

Dan Brown and his wife also have two children in the DelCom school corporation. Normally, Brown said, his kids only eat lunch at school, though his daughter, a third grader at Royerton, sometimes gets extra breakfast food when she’s hungry for it.

Even during the two years that school meals were free, his daughter didn’t regularly eat breakfast at school, but the Browns weren’t concerned if she took extra food to breakfast because it was free. Now they have to tell their daughter to watch her budget and not buy more groceries than she needs.

Brown said his daughter absorbed and understood this conversation well, even at her young age. They stressed to her that they could provide extra food at home if she needed it and that she didn’t have to worry about that. Because their second child is a Royerton kindergarten student, the family was used to paying for just one child’s school meals for just a year before COVID-19 hit.

Brown is a product owner while his wife is an education specialist and instructional designer. Brown said his family always has to keep track of their children’s food balances, and that’s an added stress now that meals aren’t free anymore. However, Brown recognized that this issue could affect other families more than his own.

“It [isn’t] a terrible drain on our budget, but knowing some of the other kids and knowing some of my daughter’s friends and her situation, it’s probably a little more of a struggle,” Brown said. “So [I’m] a little disappointed that it was declining from what appeared to be more beneficial to all students in the long run [they] I didn’t have to worry about not being able to eat.”

Similarly, Dowling said she bears a degree of guilt because she knows many families struggle to find the resources to do this consistently while she can afford the meals. For Brown, he said he does the family’s grocery shopping, and since prices have gotten so high, he often goes to three or four different stores to find the cheapest items. As an added problem, his son usually packs his lunch from home to eat at school.

“The pay might actually be a little cheaper at school than making packed lunches all the time,” Brown said. “Well, sometimes that actually increases the cost of lunch because he doesn’t eat as much there as they do at school. Even if lunch was free I don’t know if he would eat there often but we could push it more on him, try to get him to try more things at school.”

Things aren’t getting any easier for families, because according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food prices are projected to rise 7.1 percent in 2023, though not as sharply as the 9.9 percent in 2022. That’s why for MCS, Panther The Pantry continues necessary to help two days a week, breakfast and lunch cannot be taken at school.

“You are grateful. Any little bit we can help helps them,” Huston said. “Maybe it will help someone pay an easy bill, maybe it will help them with something else. I don’t know, it only helps them. Does everyone have to participate in the program? No, but I want them in the program if they want [because] They must have it open to everyone. There is no discrimination.”

Volunteer Kyleigh Phillips ties bags of groceries for Panther Pantry at Southside Middle School January 26. Jacy Bradley, DN

Dowling said during COVID-19, when the kids were out of school, DelCom ran a similar program, offering free packed lunches Monday through Friday to help families for every child under 18, no matter where they went School. Though meals aren’t automatically free for all students in Delaware County’s seven public school organizations except MCS, Christiana Mann, assistant professor of hospitality innovation and leadership at Ball State University, said all schools in Delaware County mail out papers at the start of each school year , asking parents to fill out financial information to determine if their family is eligible for free or discounted meals and/or textbooks.

About 42 percent of Indiana students are eligible for free meals, according to Mann formerly held an administrative role at MCS, where she was a volunteer coordinator at East Washington Academy and a program coordinator at South View Elementary. During her time there, she says, the biggest problem with this system was that not many families responded to the forms that were sent out, meaning there was nothing the school board could do.

“I think any social issue with a population is frustrating and discouraging and sad,” Mann said. “Because in the end the child suffers.”

Regardless of the forms, Mann said she believes the current state of the economy across the country and the cost of meals and textbooks are making it difficult for families to get children through school. Therefore, she believes that continuing to offer free meals in all school communities would be of great help, not only to families.

“It affects everyone, even those who don’t qualify [for free meals] with food security and consistent and nutritious means of having food,” Mann said. “It was

much easier to just make that available to everyone… And I have to think the logistics were a lot easier for the cafeteria workers and the company that manages them too.”

According to the Indiana Department of Education, more than 40 Indiana public school institutions offer completely free meals to all students. In contrast, if the Dowlings pay $27 a week and the Browns pay $26 a week in DelCom schools just for lunch, that means those families are paying an average of $179 a week to support their families, if one the average includes a $152 grocery bill, although Dowling said her family’s bill is usually around $300.

Dowling said she doesn’t feel much has changed on the financial side since COVID-19 and she is confident that free meals for all students in all school corporations would benefit every family, regardless of income.

“I think free lunch and free breakfast should be [offered] forever,” said Dowling. “…I think food prices are so high right now and there are still a lot of people who seem to be unemployed or earning the same wages as before COVID[-19]I think it would be really helpful.”

Contact Kyle Smedley with comments via email at [email protected] or on Twitter @KyleSmedley_.

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