Inside the fight to extend the free school meals program

yesUzanne Morales, director of nutrition services for more than 30 schools in California’s Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District, often has to adhere to strict conditions when feeding her district’s 24,000 students. Her schools must offer legumes, dark green vegetables, or red or orange vegetables daily, on a rotating basis, and all grain products must be at least 51% whole grain. Meals cannot contain added trans fat, no more than 10% of calories can come from saturated fat, and each school lunch must offer a cup of nonfat or 1% milk.

Failure to comply with these, or any other provision of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), generally means that a district does not receive federal reimbursement for the meals it has provided. But two years ago, that system changed. In March 2020, as COVID-19 began to spread across the US, plunging tens of millions of families into economic uncertainty, the US Department of Agriculture, with the help of additional funding from the Congress, began issuing a handful of waivers that temporarily provided schools with an alternative solution to some of the NSLP’s strict criteria, increased reimbursement rates and allowed all children, regardless of their parents’ income level, to have access to to school meals.

The exemptions were a great success. Republicans and Democrats defended them, schools embraced the new flexibility, and thousands of millions of meals were provided to tens of millions of hungry children. But, when the umbrella package funding the government for fiscal year 2022 was unveiled last month, an extension of funding for school meal waivers was not part of it. Instead, the schools faced a looming deadline: Waivers are set to expire June 30.

The timing is bad. While the immediate public health threat from COVID-19 has passed, schools are now grappling with 40-year high inflation and unprecedented supply chain shortages of items including milk, vegetables and protein, which it often prevents them from complying with pre-pandemic stipulations of the NSLP. . School administrators, including Morales, are in a panic. Children’s advocates warn that children will go hungry. And lawmakers on Capitol Hill point fingers at each other. Democrats blame Republicans for blocking an attempt to add the waiver extension to the omnibus legislation as an amendment, and Republicans blame the Biden Administration. for not including the waiver extensions in its $22 billion COVID-19 supplemental budget request.

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Now, a handful of senators have introduced a bipartisan bill to extend the waivers through the 2023 school year, but its future is uncertain. Supporters need sixty votes to pass the measure, which is expected to cost $11 billion. While Democrats, including centrist Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, are on board, only two Republicans have signed on.

The stakes are high. If the bipartisan bill doesn’t pass, schools will have less funding to prepare meals under stricter nutritional guidelines and hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren in America will not have access to the meals they have depended on for years.

“All we want to do is feed the children,” says Morales.

Schools are struggling with labor shortages and rising costs

Even with waivers in place, school lunch program operators say it’s getting harder to make ends meet. The cost of Morales’ paper goods, such as napkins, has increased 60% since 2019; while their food costs increased by 40%. The increased federal reimbursement rate, while crucial, gave him a boost of no more than 30%, “which doesn’t match increases in his costs,” he says.

Teresa Brown, Administrator of Auxiliary Services for St. Charles Parish Public Schools in Luling, Louisiana, says retaining employees amid a nationwide labor shortage is an additional concern. Her district, which is still reeling from both the pandemic and Category 4 Hurricane Ida that destroyed homes and businesses in the fall of 2021, can’t compete with rising wages, leaving her without staff. That shortfall makes providing meals more expensive, she says, as it forces schools to use prepackaged meals, which are more expensive, but require less labor “than an item we can cook from scratch.” Brown estimates that it costs her schools “well over” $4 to provide a meal now, compared to less than $3 before the pandemic.

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Under the pandemic-era waivers, federal reimbursement rates for school lunches increased from about $0.30 to $3.48 per meal, depending on geography and student income level, to about $3.66 per lunch. That’s a “wonderful” increase, says Brown, but it’s not enough. TO recent survey by the nonprofit National Association for School Nutrition found that even with waivers, 48% of school meal programs anticipated a net loss for the 2020-2021 school year, and only 32% within that group anticipated having sufficient reserves to cover that loss.

Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations for the School Nutrition Association, says if the waivers are allowed to lapse entirely, it will be financially devastating for schools. “Losing the waivers would be a financial double whammy,” says Pratt-Heavner. “Not only would they lose that higher reimbursement rate, but they would see their share of meals decrease, because meals are no longer free for all students. And the fewer meals you serve, the higher your costs per meal.”

Schools are currently in the process of signing contracts for staple foods and setting school meal prices for the upcoming school year. Unless waivers are extended soon, schools will have to make up for lost waivers and record food costs by raising their prices. Without the exemptions, once again, more students will be required to purchase meals at school. “We’re really reaching a crisis point,” says Pratt-Heavner. “Not only are you going to have families suddenly have to pay for their meals, but they’re going to pay more.”

The bipartisan effort to keep kids fed

Enter Senate Agriculture Chair Debbie Stabenow and Senator Lisa Murkowski. On March 31, Stabenow, a Democrat from Michigan, and Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska, inserted a bill to extend USDA school meal flexibilities through September 30, 2023 to help schools transition back to normal meal guidelines and reimbursement rates under the USDA’s school meal programs USDA.

“After the widespread disruptions caused by COVID, life is starting to feel more ‘normal’ for some. However, many Alaskans are still working through the economic fallout from the pandemic and many schools continue to struggle with supply shortages and higher prices,” Murkowski said in a statement at the time of the bill’s introduction. . “That’s why I’m pleased to join Senator Stabenow and my Senate colleagues in a push to enable USDA to extend vital support for school nutrition programs and prevent barriers that can prevent students from receiving a healthy meal.”

Stabenow and Murkowski need to amass 60 total Senate supporters to pass the Senate filibuster threshold. “We have 50 members who support extending these critically important flexibilities to feeding kids both in the summer and during the school year,” Stabenow tells TIME.

So far, only Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, has joined Murkowski in supporting the bill on the Republican side. “We need eight more Republicans to join us and we can do that,” adds Stabenow.

In the absence of sufficient Republican support, schools will struggle to meet pre-pandemic criteria. Last summer, when Morales was serving 37,000 free meals, a 185% increase from summer 2019 levels, he was unable to obtain a dark green vegetable to meet federal nutritional guidelines due to supply chain disruptions. supply and inflation. Because of the flexibilities in the exemptions, he was able to substitute carrots and still get a federal reimbursement, allowing him to keep the meal program solvent. When these exemptions expire, that type of substitution will no longer be an option, and he’ll have lower reimbursement rates to find a solution that meets the guidelines.

“This is really a kids versus bureaucracy situation,” says Stabenow. “If we don’t get these flexibilities so kids can have the healthy foods they need to be successful, we’re basically going to go back to a situation where we have a lot of red tape and a lot of hungry kids. .”

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write to Abby Vesoulis at [email protected]