Congress extends pandemic-era school meal program, with caveats

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Congress on Friday passed a bill to extend a pandemic-era program through the summer that provided free meals to students regardless of income. But lawmakers added a caveat that means fewer kids will qualify in the fall.

The $3 billion Keep Kids Fed Act was praised by advocates who called the lunch waivers a critical source of nutrition for low-income children. The measure also provides schools with a higher reimbursement rate per meal for the next school year and offers more flexible guidelines for school nutrition programs coping with supply chain problems and short staffing.

But it also reinstates a requirement, suspended during the pandemic, that low-income students above the poverty line pay a reduced price for their meals, rather than getting them free. The provision was added to the bill at the request of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

Lisa Davis, senior vice president of Share Our Strength, an organization fighting childhood hunger, said the change will result in a logistical nightmare because parents will have to fill out paperwork, resulting in fewer children who qualify.

“To get parents to fill out applications they haven’t had to for the past two and a half years is asking a lot,” Davis said. “A lot of kids will fall through the cracks, and we know families are still hurting with food and gas prices soaring.”

Still, had the measure failed, advocates estimate 7 million students would have gone without meals this summer. The waivers were extended just days ahead of their June 30 expiration date.

The cold truth about hot lunch: School meal programs are running out of food and workers

While nearly all of the pandemic-era social safety net programs have ended, the decision to keep this one in place signals significant bipartisan interest in having universal school meals extend beyond the covid-19 emergency. Echoing this shift in thinking, Vermont, California, Maine and, most recently, Nevada, have approved state funding to feed all public-school students free.

In addition to extending waivers for the 2022 summer meal program, the bill increases federal reimbursements for every school lunch by 40 cents and every school breakfast by 15 cents, above the annual inflationary adjustment. It extends waivers for schools unable to meet nutrition standards due to supply chain disruptions and to reduce administrative and reporting burdens.

Beth Wallace, president of the School Nutrition Association, the trade group for school-food-service manufacturers and professionals, cites an onslaught of challenges in schools’ efforts to ensure students are nourished in the past couple years.

“Supply chain breakdowns, skyrocketing costs and severe labor shortages, expected to persist well into next school year, have prevented school meal programs from returning to normal operations,” she said, expressing disappointment in the reintroduction of the reduced-cost option.

“Throughout the pandemic, free school meals have ensured students are nourished and ready to learn. The loss of free school meals puts too many students at risk of going hungry,” Wallace said.

Pandemic expansion of school lunch program appears slated to end suddenly

Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and John Boozman (R-Ark.), along with Reps. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.) and Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), led the efforts to get the bill passed in Congress.

“As I visit with our school nutrition professionals, it is quite clear that they need continued flexibilities to cope with ongoing supply chain issues. I am pleased that after lengthy bipartisan negotiations we were able to come to an agreement to extend the waivers in a manner that is fully paid for,” Boozman said in a statement.

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