The waiver program giving school students free school meals might be ending soon, but there are other options for plenty of communities.
Nearly two months ago, members of Congress failed to extend the child nutrition waivers program that fed an additional 10 million students free school meals each day. This program significantly curbed child hunger throughout the pandemic, and it left schools across the nation scrambling to come up with means to feed children during summer school programs. But according to K-12 Dive, there might still be hope for many districts.
The national child nutrition waivers program is set to expire on June 30th as of now. However, an advisor for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service recently stated that states will be able to apply for additional waivers that would allow parents and caregivers to pick up free school meals during the summer. This will be run through the Summer Food Service Program. Unfortunately to some, however, the waivers will only be allowed in low-income communities. To determine which communities qualify, the program looks at Census data or school data depicting that more than half of an area’s students rely on free or reduced-price meals.
Individual states will have to apply for certain nutrition waivers to guarantee they are meeting requirements under the National School Lunch Act Section 12 when serving free school meals. Much of this attention is because the spokesperson, Anne Fiala, said the USDA has been discussing concerns regarding free meal programs over the last several months. In a webinar earlier this week, Fiala said, “We heard you, we appreciate your insights, and we acknowledge that the downstream effects from COVID-19 are still happening and they’re far from over, and we’re working hard with you to smooth this transition as much as possible.”
School meals are an imperative lifeline for millions of families throughout the nation. When the pandemic first ravaged the U.S., and schools shuttered their doors, school officials worried that many children would go hungry, as they knew free school meals were often the only form of nutrition some children received. To combat this, the child nutrition waivers program was enacted to assure every child would continue to receive meals from schools.
Dianne Pratt-Heavner, a spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association, said the districts shouldn’t assume they will not qualify for the free school meals waiver this summer. To this, she pointed to a checklist of waivers some may be eligible for. Furthermore, Pratt-Heavner noted that many school districts quit collecting data during the pandemic regarding free and reduced-price meals since everyone qualified. She stated that it’s possible that local demographics might have shifted in the last two years for some communities, perhaps making them eligible this year for free summer meals.
Even better news may be just around the corner for other families regarding the costs of school lunches as well. Throughout 2021, food prices rose 3.9% across America. Fiala stated that the USDA is likely to raise meal reimbursement rates this summer, following their adjustment with the Consumer Price Index. It might not be the same as free school meals, but at this point, anything will help the countless struggling American families.
Congress still has time to reauthorize the USDA’s authority to extend the free school meals waiver. But if that fails to happen, the results could be destructive to many communities. Next school year, districts will likely have to increase the costs of school meals to accommodate rising costs. And on top of a plethora of other issues districts face on budgets next year, the outlook is dismal.