Public schools across the county are seeing a reduction in free and reduced meal applications this year, as student sign-ups drop by hundreds per district.

This seemingly good news does not reflect a decrease in need, said Tom Sauvage, Meramec Valley R-III assistant superintendent. The demand for free or reduced lunches is still there, and without families applying now, schools could miss out on much-needed funding for future years.

“We hear that unemployment is up, but our free reduced lunch status is down, so that doesn’t match,” Sauvage said.

The reason is “really simple,” said Jill Poepsel, Washington’s food services director. This year, families are receiving free meals regardless of whether they sign up for the program, due to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Free Meals for Kids program. This offers free breakfasts and lunches to all children in school to support families during the pandemic. 

As a result, Poepsel said, families do not have to apply for the free and reduced meal program now to receive food immediately.

This leads to two dilemmas.

One, parents can miss out on non-food-related discounts, said Dr. Mike Mabe, Union R-XI School District assistant superintendent of operations. By signing up for the program, they can take the ACT or send in college applications for less money.

Two, a chunk of funding schools receive from the state is determined by the number of students signed up for free and reduced lunches, Sauvage said.

“Although everyone got free and reduced lunch, or got free meals this year, we don’t see that necessarily continuing,” Sauvage said. “Then we’ll be back in a situation where people will need financial help.”

At the MVR-III district, applications are down by nearly 20 percent from last school year, Sauvage said. In 2019, 1,717 students had signed up. This year, the number is 1,389.

“With the difference of 328 students, we’re estimating we would see a $400,000 to $500,000 loss,” he said. 

At Union R-XI, applications are down over 35 percent with 645 fewer students signed up.

Program sign-ups have been cut in half at the Washington school district, Poepsel said. This school year, there are 299 applications to date, and last school year, there were 631.

“I think it’s important to get this information out to the public,” Sauvage said. “It’s not only qualifying them for free and reduced meals, but also it helps the district qualify for the funding that’s necessary to keep the programming that they may have become accustomed to.”