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For six months, school nutrition workers have begged Congress to extend pandemic-era meal waivers that have given educators more flexibility in feeding children. If allowed to expire June 30, millions of kids would be left without reliable access to food and thousands of districts will have to continue to cover inflated food prices amid supply chain issues and labor shortages.
Just ahead of that deadline, lawmakers may finally have a solution. The bipartisan Keep Kids Fed Act of 2022, a reimagination of proposals earlier this spring that failed to gain traction, could extend these waivers through the end of the 2022-2023 school year.
The nearly $3 billion bill would help educators offer free meals to children who qualify for reduced-price lunches and breakfast. It would reimburse schools at rates above inflation so they can afford to buy nutritious food. And it would lift penalties for schools if they are unable to meet nutritional guidelines due to supply chain constraints. For example, if the current wheat shortage means a school administrator cannot buy whole grain bread, they do not have to worry about being fined for replacing that missing menu item with white bread.
READ MORE: How Maine is trying to take food insecurity off kids’ plates
Sponsors of the bill are hoping to push a vote this week so the bill can go through Congress and make it to the president’s desk by the end of the month.
“With 90 percent of our schools still facing challenges as they return to normal operations, this will give our schools and summer meal programs much-needed support to deal with ongoing food service issues,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said in a statement.
School administrators usually budget and plan out meals for the fall semester in the spring, said Diane Pratt-Heavner of the School Nutrition Association. This year’s challenges – like negotiating bids with vendors who ghost them, cancel orders or draw up escalation clauses for food orders amid decades-high inflation – have also made planning’s challenges – like negotiating bids with vendors who ghost them, cancel orders or draw up escalation clauses for food orders amid decades-high inflation – have also made planning for summer’s immediate needs more of a struggle more of a struggle.
The deadline to renew the waivers is just the latest stressor for school nutrition workers. When COVID shut down schools and whole communities in March 2020, cafeteria workers and nutrition administrators triaged food needs for kids and families who may have otherwise gone without. These waivers made it possible for kids to take school-provided meals out of the building, and also reimbursed schools for these meals. Traditionally, students had to eat cafeteria-provided meals at school to comply with federal regulations.
Instead, workers dropped meals off at students’ homes and allowed parents to pick up a week’s worth of meals on campus. That went on for months.
“Our members are really exhausted at this point,” Pratt-Heavner said.
READ MORE: How COVID funding could help improve air quality in schools
If Congress does not act, “the end of the waivers are going to have an impact on every school district,” said Sebasthian Varas, a nutrition services director for the Canyons School District in northern Utah.
About a quarter of the 3,400 students in his district qualified for free-and-reduced lunch before the pandemic, and the meal waivers have been helping feed them and their families. When his district alerted the community that those meals could go away because Congress might miss its deadline, families responded that the change would be a hardship for them, Varas said. The district already has been forced to close some of its distribution sites for summer meals due to uncertainty about funding due to uncertainty about funding. Constrained by tight household budgets and spiking gas prices, some families cannot afford to drive 15 extra miles to pick up those meals regularly, he said.
Varas worries that the cost of inaction in Washington could last far past summer for some students.
“We don’t want students to go hungry,” Varas said. “We know there’s a direct link between good nutrition and academic success.”
Laura Santhanam is the Health Reporter and Coordinating Producer for Polling for the PBS NewsHour, where she has also worked as the Data Producer. Follow @LauraSanthanam
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