It is a fundamental fact of learning that it is difficult to concentrate or do anything if you are
hungry. There is a hierarchy of needs and stomachs are at the top.
Youth advocates face a daunting deadline. The last day for Congress to reauthorize the series
of waivers that have allowed public schools creatively to deliver meals to students during this
pandemic is June 30. The waivers were originally passed in March 2020. They gave schools
flexibility to deal with the Covid-19 and remote learning challenges, as well as the supply chain
crisis, high inflation at the grocery shop, and the school labor shortage. Additionally, the waivers
allowed additional 10,000,000 students to receive free breakfast and lunch every day.
The education leaders believed Congress would extend meal flexibility for an additional year.
The two waivers that expire in June were extended twice before by a bipartisan agreement. The
Keeping school meals flexible Act was introduced by the Democratic Reps. Abigail Spanberger,
Suzanne Bonamici, and Republican Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick, and John Katko. It was intended to
extend the waivers one more time until June 2023. However, when Congress passed its $1.5
billion spending bill in March the language for school meals was not included. Advocates were
shocked and said that this decision has already affected access to summer meals for almost 7
Jillian Meier (director of the No Kid Hungry campaign) stated that there is not enough political
urgency to have such a conversation. This is not something Congress or the White House
considers a priority. People are focused on a return to normal… people aren’t talking about this
and don’t know that there is a crisis.
Many would like to see the waiver authorizing universally free meals become permanent. This
will reduce the stigma and administrative burdens placed on parents and school districts.
Advocates say that this is not the purpose of the fight. They want just one year of flexibility to
help schools whether inflation and supply chain crises and to reach millions of families who
haven’t filled out school meal applications in the past 2.5 years.
“Usually, that outreach begins in the fall and then you get the sign-ups going for next school
year,” Katie Wilson, executive director of the Urban School Food Alliance. She works with large
school districts. How do you reach these millions of families? It won’t happen.
Research has shown that child nutrition programs can improve academic achievement, school
attendance, and student health outcomes. This has been proven over many decades. The
consequences of not extending waivers won’t be limited to those families who are subject to
paperwork. Schools will have less money to pay rising food costs and face severe financial
penalties if they fail to meet federal nutrition requirements. This is a problem due to widespread
product shortages. Some schools might reduce their food offerings or even cease providing
meals entirely. Others might reduce their budgets for classrooms.
Inflation and supply chain problems aren’t just for school lunches
The federal nutrition guidelines are important guidelines that students can follow in order to
have healthy choices. Schools cannot be reimbursed fully for meals they prepare unless the
meals are of a high-quality standard.
These aren’t normal times. School nutrition directors across the country say that they have
never had such difficulty stocking cafeterias full of basic foods like milk, meat, or vegetables. It is
becoming more common for food orders not to arrive or to only be partially filled.
The US Department of Agriculture conducted a survey in March and found that 92 percent of
School Food Authorities had reported supply chain problems. Bread and chicken are among the
most difficult to source. Nearly three-quarters of SFAs reported staffing problems, including
acute shortages in drivers, cooks, and food prep workers.
The nutrition directors had to think outside the box to find emergency replacements. This
included shopping trips to Kroger and Costco at 4 AM. Some school districts have reduced the
number of meals they offer to just one instead of three to four. Schools could be subject to
financial penalties if they do not comply with federal waivers. They also face increased pressure
from hound families to pay unpaid school lunch debt.
The federal government has paid more for school meals thanks to waivers than ever before.
School districts have barely been able to survive with this reimbursement flexibility. “Ninety
percent” of schools use waivers, and only 75% of them are making a profit, Stacy Dean, USDA
deputy Undersecretary, stated to the Washington Post in March.
The average reimbursement rate could fall by almost 40% if there is no extension. This would
be due to schools continuing to pay higher food and labor costs. Grocery prices were 10.8
percent higher year-over-year in April 2021 than they were in April 2021 and are expected to
rise substantially this fiscal year.
Wilson stated that Wilson believes we will fall off a cliff on June 30th. Wilson stated that they
simply don’t have enough labor to return to what they did before the pandemic. There are
hundreds of missing people in our school districts. It is absurd to expect them all to be able to
account for every child and their family income.
Congress could easily extend waivers
Many advocacy groups, school districts, and elected officials have asked Congress for
authorization to reauthorize waivers for the next school year at a cost of approximately $11
Senator Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow (D, MI) said to Politico that Republican
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was the one who opposed including school meal waivers into
their March spending bill. To extend the waivers, Stabenow introduced the Support Kids Not
Red-Tape Act a few weeks later. However, this bill has only been formalized by Democrats and
Republicans Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins, and no Republicans. The extension is supported
by Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, moderate Democrats.
However, Republican support may be greater than co-sponsorship would suggest. John
Boozman, the Senate Agriculture Ranking Member, told Vox that he has been meeting with
child hunger advocates and school nutrition professionals to ensure healthy meals at school. He
said that both sides of the Senate desire that outcome and that they continue to engage in
good-faith discussions about the best way forward. He also mentioned that he values the
“frequent input” he receives from those who work tirelessly to feed the hungry children.
McConnell declined to comment on the matter publicly and his office didn’t respond to Vox’s
request. A GOP leadership aide said to Politico they don’t see pandemic-era flexibilities
anymore and blamed the Biden Administration for not including an extension of meal waivers in
its Covid spending bill and the budget request. Tom Vilsack, Agriculture Secretary, said that he
was pressing Congress to extend waivers for an additional year.
Child hunger activists believe that a crisis has been orchestrated to harm Democrats in the
“It’s political. Wilson stated that the Republicans know this will explode in the summer and that
there is an election in November. People will be outraged and families will have large lunch
debts, and they’ll blame the legislators. Nobody will know that Senator Stabenow filed a bill to
prevent this. They’ll want to know why their children are starving.
Already, summer meal programs are being affected
The federal summer meals program was established in 1975. Operates in areas where at
minimum 50% of children live in poverty and are eligible for reduced or free meals during the
school year. The American Prospect stated that this program was created with concentrated
urban poverty and is less accessible to children from rural areas.
The pandemic waivers did not exempt meal suppliers from the density requirement. The waivers
allow providers to provide summer meals in bulk to families even in urban areas, thereby
reducing the need for parents to travel to pick up food every day.
Due to Congress’ delay in extending waivers, thousands of federally subsidized meal sites have
pulled out of participating in the next months.
Wilson stated that many small faith-based organizations, especially those of faith, have told
Wilson, “No, we’re not going to change from feeding all children up to June 1, and then say,
now, we need to know your family income to serve you.” It’s a nightmare if the groups have to
USDA data shows that there were 67.224 sites offering summer meals in 2021. The No Kid
Hungry campaign reveals that one out of five of these sites will not be able to provide meals for
all children this summer, threatening access to nearly 7 million children.
Meier stated that Congress could solve this problem through many avenues. They don’t require
a huge relief package like Build back Better. Congress can increase food flow to families, but
right now it is refusing to pull that lever.