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St. Louis archdiocese: Students won't lose their lunch over federal program decision

The Archdiocese of St. Louis says low-income students will not be without school lunches in Catholic schools, despite its decision to stop participating in federal school lunch and milk subsidy programs.

Students in line for lunch. Credit: Marc F. Henning / Alamy Stock Photo

The Archdiocese of St. Louis said Wednesday that students will not be without school lunches in Catholic schools, despite an archdiocesan decision to stop participating in federal school lunch and milk subsidy programs for students from low-income families. But questions remain unanswered about the reason for the decision.

The archdiocesan decision is the result of unspecified federal mandates tied to the subsidies, a spokesman told The Pillar Aug. 31.

“As with any federal subsidy, schools that participate in these programs are subject to a wide variety of federal mandates, which could ultimately impact decisions concerning admissions, extracurricular activities, facilities, and logistics,” said Brecht Mulvihill, director of communications for the St. Louis archdiocese, after news about the decision was reported this week by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

“In some circumstances, these mandates would impede a school’s ability to faithfully carry out the teachings of the Catholic Church. For this reason, the Archdiocese of St. Louis has decided not to participate in these programs,” Mulvihill added.

The archdiocese declined to say which federal mandates tied to the milk and school lunch subsidies might impact its Catholic schools.

The Biden administration announced in May that schools receiving federal funds could lose the money if they did not observe federal gender and sexual orientation guidelines in non-discrimination polices.

In the same month, the U.S. bishops’ conference warned bishops that changes to federal Title IX civil rights regulations, especially on sexual orientation and gender identity policies, would likely impact “school athletics, locker rooms and restrooms, dorms and overnight accommodations, records, pronoun usage, curricula, and scholarships.”

The Green Bay, Wisconsin diocese said in August that its schools were in danger of losing federal lunch subsidies because of diocesan sexual orientation and gender identity policies adopted in July.

But an Aug. 12 memo from federal Department of Agriculture indicated that schools would be exempted - even without seeking a formal exemption - from Title IX requirements “if there is a conflict between Title IX and a school’s governing religious tenets.”

The Agriculture Department administers the National School Lunch Program and other federal subsidies that provide free and reduced-price lunches or milk to millions of American elementary and high school students.

An official at the Missouri Catholic Conference told The Pillar Thursday the conference was not involved in the archdiocesan policy decision, and was not aware whether other Missouri dioceses are contemplating a similar decision.

According to the St. Louis archdiocese, “there are currently around a dozen archdiocesan elementary and high schools that have participated in the National School Lunch Program; a larger number of archdiocesan schools have participated in the Special Milk Program.”

Despite the archdiocesan decision, meal service at those schools is not over, Mulvihill told The Pillar.

“Children who qualify for these programs still have access to similar meal service or reduced-cost options. As we continue discerning permanent alternatives, there has been, and will continue to be, no disruption of these important food services,” the spokesman explained.

It is not clear whether free lunches will be provided directly from school budgets for students who need them, or whether specific donors have agreed to ensure that free and reduced lunches are available.

Mulvihill did not respond to questions from The Pillar about a July discrimination lawsuit filed against both a parish school and the archdiocese, by parents who allege that a new school principal abandoned the educational and accommodation plan which allowed their daughter, who has learning disabilities, to attend Catholic school. Amid a dispute over that plan, the student was eventually prohibited from re-enrolling at her school.

Parents argued in their lawsuit that the parish school had an obligation to accommodate students with disabilities, claiming that because the school accepted federal funds, it was bound to federal discrimination statutes.

In July, the parents’ attorney mentioned specifically federal lunch subsidies in comments about the case to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Sources close to the St. Louis chancery told The Pillar they were surprised by St. Louis Archbishop Mitchell Rozanski’s decision on the federal lunch programs.

“The archbishop is not a culture warrior,” one senior Church leader told The Pillar Friday. “It’s not like he’d go charging into this for the headlines, or just for its own sake or something. That’s why the whole thing seems confusing at the ground level — it doesn’t seem like the kind of thing he would be the first [bishop] in the country to do.”

Rozanski, installed in St. Louis in August 2020, has faced controversy involving federal assistance funds in the past.

After the bishop took over the Diocese of Springfield, Massachusetts in 2014, he announced that a high school destroyed by a 2011 tornado might not be rebuilt, because Cathedral High School was financially unsustainable, despite a near $30 million pledge from FEMA to construct a new school.

The bishop faced pushback from some Springfield Catholics when he suggested that the money might be better spent on other school projects in the diocese, or that it might not be prudent to rebuild at all.

After local controversy, the school was eventually merged with another Catholic high school in the diocese, and a new building was constructed on the Cathedral High School campus.

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