Free school lunches for all set to end, creating ‘perfect storm’ amid high inflation

A federal waiver that made school breakfasts and lunches free for students, regardless of family income, will expire on June 30, eliminating a benefit that helped millions of school children at a time when they need it. needed more than ever, say hunger advocates.

The free school meals program began in March 2020 when Congress authorized the U.S. Department of Agriculture to issue dozens of child nutrition waivers, including ones that expanded summer food programs, to provide a lifeline during the pandemic.

If the waivers end this month as planned, experts predict a crisis as families, already facing soaring prices at supermarkets, gas stations and elsewhere, will lose access to the meals their children are on. counted for two years.

Cafeterias that serve students, meanwhile, are already facing hurdles: Supply chain disruptions have dramatically increased the cost of their food and made it difficult for them to meet strict food safety requirements. meals established by the USDA. The waivers gave them the flexibility to provide nutritious meals using substitutions without penalties.

“School lunch programs are facing a perfect storm,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association, a trade organization representing more than 50,000 school nutrition employees.

“They’re very concerned about financial sustainability,” she said, and with universal free meals gone, “they’re very concerned that kids will be hungry next year.”

Prior to child nutrition waivers, children from families with incomes at or below 130% of the federal poverty level were eligible for free school meals, while those from families with incomes between 130% and 185% of the poverty line were eligible for reduced meal prices through the USDA’s National School Lunch Program.

About 21 million students had access to a free or reduced price lunch each school day before the pandemic, said Jillien Meier, director of partnerships and campaign strategy No Kid Hungry. But until 2020, registering students could be cumbersome, both for parents who had to prove they were qualified and for schools collecting the information, which would be even more difficult now due to staff shortages. .

For two years, parents have not had to fill out applications. And because every student at their school was offered free breakfast and lunch, it reduced the stigma some students had previously associated with receiving meals, Meier said.

The waivers allowed schools to distribute take-out meals when they traveled away. They are credited with helping avert what many feared was a catastrophic spike in child hunger when the pandemic hit.

“We believe this is directly attributed to the flexibilities provided by Congress,” Meier said. “And now they refuse to extend those waivers.”

The USDA’s authority to issue waivers was to be extended for a year by President Joe Biden. But the extension was not included in the omnibus spending bill passed by Congress. POLITICO reported that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republicans opposed expanding school lunch funding because of its roughly $11 billion cost; a McConnell aide denied this to NBC News, saying there was never a proposal to reject.

The USDA urged Congress for an extension.

“Without congressional action, our tools to help program operators are much more limited. The USDA is reviewing all the tools at its disposal to ease the burden the pandemic has caused on school districts, but the magnitude of this problem necessitates congressional action,” the USDA said in a statement, adding that the department has been able to offer “a few of the narrow program flexibilities” as schools return to normal operations, but it is evaluating others. ways to help.

How much money did free meals save families?

Proponents have long argued that the band that allows a family to get free or reduced school breakfast and lunch is too narrow and already excludes many families struggling to make ends meet. According to the School Nutrition Association, a family of four would have had to earn $34,450 or less in the 2021-2022 school year to qualify for free meals, or $49,025 or less to qualify for meals at school. reduced price.

The price of school lunches varies across the country, and the most recent data available from the USDA is from the 2016 to 2017 school year, when school breakfast costs an average of $1.48 and school lunch costs an average of $2.57. This would mean that for a family with two children, the cost of breakfast and lunch would come to $8.10 a day, or $1,458 for a 180-day school year – although school meal prices have since risen. , so the number would be higher today.

The benefits of a universal school lunch program go beyond its financial aspects, said Kellie Crawford, who teaches K-3 science and library in Spokane, Washington.

Kellie Crawford.
Kellie Crawford.Courtesy of Kellie Crawford

Before the pandemic, about 35% of students at his elementary school were eligible for free or reduced-price meals, Crawford said. Once free meals were made available to every student, there was a noticeable increase in the overall focus and energy levels of her classes.

“We saw how amazing it was,” she said. “Our school staff — it’s easier for them to do their jobs. Our students are happier and healthier.

“We saw how amazing it was. Our school staff — it’s easier for them to do their jobs. Our students are happier and healthier.

She also said it was a relief to no longer see students stressed out that their lunch account balance was low or empty.

While some states, like California, have passed universal free school lunch programs and others have introduced legislation offering them, advocates hope Congress will act.

“Just as kids get a free bus ride to school and textbooks to learn, they need a meal in the middle of the day so they can focus on their studies,” Pratt said. -Heavner.

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