School Meal Programs Face 'Perfect Storm'

Federal waivers are expiring as inflation is soaring
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 20, 2022 7:10 PM CDT
School Meal Programs Face 'Perfect Storm'
Jefferson County School District Food Service Department staff arrange some of the hundreds of free lunches that will be given to students, March 3, 2021 in Fayette, Miss.   (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Federal waivers that allowed schools to serve free lunches to all students are about to expire, and advocates fear that will lead to millions of children going hungry. Congress authorized the US Department of Agriculture waivers early in the pandemic, helping ward off a potential spike in child hunger. Under the old rules now set to return, children of families with income at or below 130% of the federal poverty level were eligible for free school meals—a barrier some considered too high. Many eligible parents failed to fill out applications, in some cases because they were worried what Jillien Meier at the No Kid Hungry advocacy group calls a "huge stigma attached to free meals."

"School meal programs are facing a perfect storm," with inflation and supply chain issues as well as the expiry of the waivers, Diane Pratt-Heavner of the School Nutrition Association, which represents school nutrition employees, tells NBC. She says school employees are worried about the financial sustainability of meal programs—and about kids going hungry. The waivers are set to expire June 30. President Biden had been expected to extend them for another year, but due to what the Guardian calls a lack of "political will," the measure was not included in the $1.5 trillion spending bill from the Biden administration. Republicans had complained about the $11 billion cost.

Kellie Crawford, who teaches students in kindergarten through third grade in Spokane, Washington, tells NBC that it was "amazing" to see how much students' focus and energy levels improved after free lunches were expanded from around 35% of students to all of them. "Our school staff—it's easier for them to do their jobs," he says. "Our students are happier and healthy." The USDA has urged Congress to extend the waivers, and some states, including California and Maine, have introduced their own universal free school meal programs. (Read more school lunch stories.)

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