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How this bill could help fill a critical gap in funding for school meals

As senators work to negotiate a $10 billion COVID relief bill to fund pandemic needs the government is running out of money to support, Sharon Glosson’s job is to figure out how to feed most of the 60,000 students in her San Antonio school district. As soon as June, if Congress does not find a fix, she may be forced to make decisions about which kids her staff can afford to feed.

When lawmakers passed the massive $1.5 trillion omnibus spending bill last month, they failed to extend, among other programs, a series of pandemic-era school nutrition waivers that offered schools greater flexibility to plan and distribute meals. The waivers covered all students regardless of income, offered better reimbursement rates to cover the rising cost of food and helped dramatically cut the need for bureaucratic paperwork, giving school nutrition workers more time to focus on feeding kids. An estimated 90 percent of U.S. school districts have used these waivers during the pandemic to help feed 30 million children.

The House stripped out the COVID aid from a broader spending bill in order to preserve the Republican support it needed to keep the government running while also allocating funding to support Ukrainians defending against Russia’s armed invasion.

READ MORE: Lawmakers near deal on trimmed $10 billion COVID bill

Now, school nutrition administrators like Glosson are spending their limited time and staff resources on calculating several contingency plans in the event a solution doesn’t come through. That’s on top of other delays and complications – such as bloated prices for school meal staples and ongoing supply chain issues – that Glosson and others have already faced planning for summer school meals.

More of Glosson’s students rely on school-based meals today than before the coronavirus pandemic: 68 percent of kids eat lunch prepared in school cafeterias now compared to 61 percent in earlier times, according to data from the district. She also noted that research shows “students eating a meal from a cafeteria are more likely to have a nutritious meal.”

“How can we say we are a great country when we turn our backs on our children and the most basic needs they have?” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who has been working on a bill to address the issue in the Senate. “This ought to be easy. This ought to be a no-brainer.”

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A student picks up a free individually bagged lunch in the cafeteria during the first day of school. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

Through the “Support Kids Not Red Tape Act,” Stabenow told the PBS NewsHour she hopes to restore these waivers through a bipartisan bill she hoped could be rolled into the updated COVID package coursing through Congress. It has received support from the full Democratic caucus, as well as Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine. But she needs more Republicans to help pass the bill and extend these waivers, she added.

READ MORE: Biden budget calls for future investments in health care as COVID aid runs out

That support can’t come soon enough, school nutritionists say.The waivers are set to expire June 30 (the same day the fiscal year ends for Glosson’s school district), which “is way too late for us to get the answers we need,” she said. “We need to know what to do to build a budget.”

Already, “there’s a panic on behalf of the schools and communities if these [waivers] end abruptly,” Stabenow said. If it becomes law, the bill she introduced alongside Murkowski would last throughout the 2022-2023 academic year.

If that were to happen, individual families would once again have to apply to receive free or reduced price meals at school, Glosson said. That process typically takes a long time for both households and school staff to complete. Sometimes, families who qualify don’t complete the forms, or deadlines are missed, which can lead to kids ending up hungry in class. Without federal support from Congress or the Department of Agriculture, Glosson said her district will also have to revert to charging kids who, on paper, don’t qualify for meals, and then cutting them off from school lunch if they have received as little as $5 in meals without paying for them. Prices for individual meals vary, but a single lunch can cost $2.50

In the same district, Ana Handley manages Bush Middle School’s cafeteria and she said she has had to “take that tray away” from children who no longer have enough credit to receive school meals. Her staff still prepares backup options for those children – a cheese sandwich, a fruit, a vegetable and a milk – but “it does break your heart,” she said, especially when dealing with elementary students too young to understand what is happening. And the financial issues driving these interactions go far beyond this school district in Texas, Glosson said.

“These are not local decisions,” Glosson said. “This really is a federally funded, regulated program that only the federal government can provide the relief we need.”

In San Antonio, Genevieve Sugalski’s two children, ages 11 and 13, eat school meals for free every day.

Based on conversations with teachers and fellow parents, Sugalski is “very worried about students not being able to have food in their bellies” if these waivers don’t go through. She knows what that could do to their ability to succeed in the classroom, as many continue to play catchup for learning lost due to pandemic shutdowns: “All these students want is to do their best, and through no fault of their own, they’re hungry.”