Lawmakers are racing against time to pass a bill that would extend pandemic school lunch waivers through the summer and into next school year.
The House on Thursday passed a nearly $3 billion bill, 376-42, that would continue to provide more free meals to low-income families, but not to all students who had been receiving them for two years.
Schools have felt the pressure of rising food, gas and labor costs. Waivers passed by Congress at the start of the pandemic relieved regulations that monitor how, when and who receives school lunches that expire in seven days.
Congress was unable to reach an agreement in time to include it in the budget signed by President Biden in March after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell opposed the extension.
A bipartisan group in both houses reached agreement earlier this week on a budget-neutral bill, now called the Keep Kids Fed Act, that would extend some of the waivers until the next school year, but not others.
Despite navigating smoothly through the House, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., is blocking the bill in the Senate. Supporters still hope to get it to the president by the weekend.
The bill would fully extend all waivers through the summer to allow meal delivery and take-out options for students. It would also extend supply chain flexibilities and higher federal reimbursement rates than before the pandemic through the 2022-23 school year.
But the biggest omission is the exclusion of flexibilities that suspended eligibility criteria for free and reduced-price meal requests, providing every student with free meals. Although the bill offers free meals to more students, families will have to start filling out applications again to qualify.
What is given up?
Prior to the pandemic, federal laws required schools to meet specific nutritional requirements that governed what they could and could not serve to students. They had to serve their meals in “collective” places, such as a cafeteria or a park. Families had to meet income requirements to receive free or reduced-price meals under the national school meals program. And in the summer, only areas where 50% of children qualify for free or reduced-price meals can implement a summer meal program.
These rules disappeared during the pandemic.
“[Waivers] really provided a lifeline, because in many rural and suburban communities, poverty is so widely dispersed over large geographic areas,” said Jillien Meier, Director of Partnerships and Campaign Strategies at No Kid Hungry. “So even if 49% of your children in your community are eligible for free or reduced-price meals under the National School Meals Scheme, you cannot operate an open summer meal site. »
School meal waivers allowed students to have lunches to take away and/or be delivered via school buses.
They also provided flexibility to schools when supply chain disruptions started and never quite went away.
“You might order fresh fruits and vegetables and you get donuts. You order 5,000 cases of something you might get 20. The supply chain is a disaster,” said Katie Wilson, executive director of the Urban School Food Alliance. “We had a district where a big production house that they had worked with for years would call them up and say, ‘We don’t serve schools anymore. We give you two weeks notice. “”
According to the School Nutrition Association, more than 98% of school lunch programs reported shortages of menu items, supplies and packaging, as well as items discontinued by manufacturers.
School staff went to grocery stores to buy the missing ingredients. But substitute foods from a store or other vendor may be more expensive or may not meet nutritional standards.
Waivers also provided additional funds to schools to support rising food and labor costs.
Mary Rochelle, programs, events and grants coordinator for the Boulder Valley School District Food Services Department in Colorado, said one of her bread vendors raised prices by 50% without warning.
Kristen Hennessey, director of food and nutrition services for Plymouth-Canton Community Schools in Michigan, also saw beef increase by 51% and chicken by 30% in her district and employee salaries will increase by 31%. % next year.
The federal government already reimburses schools for a portion of the cost of each meal — a rate that has increased with waivers. The Congressional proposal would continue to reimburse schools per meal at higher levels than before the pandemic, but lower than the original waivers.
“For about what you would pay for a latte, schools are expected to prepare a meal that contains milk and fruits and vegetables, protein and grains,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations at the School Nutrition Association. “The pandemic and the aftermath of the supply chain and workforce challenges facing programs have just blown the model.”
Get rid of free meals
Schools are preparing to increase meal prices, so students who no longer qualify for free meals will pay more than before the pandemic.
Some schools are preparing to raise meal prices, which means families who were paying before the pandemic will now pay more when waivers expire. Only students whose family income is at or below 185% of the poverty line will be eligible.
In anticipation of expiration, the USDA extended certain flexibilities to states that chose to use them. But only Congress can change the eligibility requirements for free meals.
Reaching families with young children who must go through the process for the first time, access to technology, language barriers and confusing apps pose challenges for school administrators, Rochelle says, especially with the limbo of Congress that last for months.
Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
“Even if we contact them and ask them to complete the application and they do, there’s a good chance they won’t qualify because the threshold is so low and doesn’t change depending on where you live. “Rochelle said. “So in the Boulder area, our housing costs are three times the national average, and that doesn’t take that into account.”
Whatever the extensions, a cliff will inevitably come for schools and families unless Congress passes a more permanent solution.
The creation of virtual schools during the pandemic has ensured that students still have access to meals they otherwise would not have. Despite McConnell’s attempt to use the waivers to force the return of in-person schools, many districts are continuing with virtual learning.
“We ended up creating a very successful K-12 virtual academy in our district,” Hennessey said, adding that the virtual academy plans to stay regardless of what happens to waivers. “I started looking at the list of children who were virtual – 46% of them qualified for free reduced meals next year. I will not be able to provide meals for these children.”
School food and nutrition advocates want it addressed at the September White House conference on food and hunger. Hennessey attended one of the White House listening sessions this month in preparation for the conference. Advocates told officials access to food was revoked by not pushing for extended universal free meals for another year.
“You take away accessibility,” Hennessey recalls. “So you want us to talk about ways to [make food accessible]. Well, you just pulled off a great way to do it and you just ran a pilot for a year.”