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More and more people are finding themselves living paycheck to paycheck in the greater Tampa Bay region. In some places, rent has doubled. The cost of everyday goods — like gas and groceries — keeps creeping up. All the while, wages lag behind and the affordable housing crisis looms. Amid cost-of-living increases, WUSF is focused on documenting how people are making ends meet.

Majority of Hillsborough County schools will continue serving free meals

School lunch line Hillsborough County Gabriella Paul
Courtesy of Hillsborough County Public Schools
Students stand in the lunch line at an elementary school in Hillsborough County.

After federal COVID waivers expired that made meals free for all students, nearly three-quarters of schools in Hillsborough County qualified for the Community Eligibility Provision.

In 2020, the Department of Agriculture issued federal waivers that made meals free for all students. Those waivers expired ahead of the 2022-2023 school year.

In Hillsborough County, students at 174 schools will still receive free meals after the district opted into a federal program for the first time.

The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) program allows qualifying schools to provide free meals to all students without collecting a need-based application.

To qualify, at least 40% of the school’s students must be registered for outside food assistance, like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or be identified as part of a vulnerable group, like those in foster care or living without housing. Every year, the Florida Department of Agriculture publishes a list of eligible schools based on these metrics.

“When we ran the numbers and saw how many of our schools qualified, it was really a no-brainer for the district,” Shani Hall said, who oversees nutrition services for Hillsborough County schools.

This school year marks the first time the district opted into the federal program. Though, it’s not the first time the district's schools were eligible.

Data from the last time full-priced meals were charged, during the 2019-2020 school year, show that 166 schools were eligible. There’s 250 schools in the district.

Ahead of the 22-23 school year, seven schools were eligible that weren't prior to the pandemic.

During prior school years, Hall said the district passed on the free-meals-for-all program because it presents its own challenges.

“One of the challenges of districts is determining how to go without the free- and reduced-lunch data that the meal application provides,” she said.

The individualized data often serves as a reliable indicator for which students might benefit from other types of assistance, like Title I allocations or fee waivers for college exams.

Participating in the CEP program means giving up that data, Hall said.

For Hillsborough County schools that are not enrolled in the CEP program, free- and reduced-lunch is still available through the National School Lunch Program to families that submit a need-based application.

Gabriella Paul covers the stories of people living paycheck to paycheck in the greater Tampa Bay region for WUSF. She's also a Report for America corps member. Here’s how you can share your story with her.

I tell stories about living paycheck to paycheck for public radio at WUSF News. I’m also a corps member of Report For America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.
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