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A program that helps millions of hungry kids is about to expire

Inflation and supply chain issues are wreaking havoc on school lunches. Congress has one month to fix it.

A student carries his lunch at Freedom Preparatory Academy in Provo, Utah, in September 2020.
George Frey/AFP via Getty Images
Rachel M. Cohen covers social policy for Vox. Before joining the newsroom, she reported for publications including The Atlantic, The New Republic and Washingtonian. She is based in Washington, DC.

One of the most fundamental and intuitive facts about learning is that it’s hard to focus, or really do much of anything, if you’re hungry. There’s a hierarchy of needs, and stomachs come out on top.

Yet youth advocates are staring down a chilling deadline. June 30 is the last day for Congress to reauthorize a series of waivers that have allowed public schools to creatively deliver meals to students during the pandemic.

Originally passed in March 2020, the waivers granted schools the flexibility to navigate not only the challenges of remote learning and Covid-19, but also the supply chain crisis, the school labor shortage, and steep inflation at the grocery store. The waivers also expanded eligibility for school meals, enabling an additional 10 million students to access free breakfast and lunch each day.

Education leaders assumed Congress would re-extend the meal flexibility for one more year. The waivers, which expire at the end of June, were extended twice before on a bipartisan basis. In February, Democratic Reps. Abigail Spanberger and Suzanne Bonamici and Republican Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick and John Katko introduced the Keeping School Meals Flexible Act to extend them one last time through June 2023, but when Congress passed its $1.5 trillion spending bill in March, the language for school meals was missing. Advocates were stunned, and say this decision alone has already jeopardized access to summer meals for nearly 7 million children.

“There is no urgency and political appetite to even have this conversation,” said Jillien Meier, director of the No Kid Hungry campaign. “Frankly this is not a priority for Congress and the White House. People are really focused on having a ‘return to normal’ ... folks aren’t talking about it and they have no clue that this crisis that is looming.”

Many people would certainly like to see the waiver authorizing universal free meals made permanent, reducing the stigma for children and administrative burdens on parents and school districts. But advocates say that’s not what this fight is about. Instead, they’re seeking just one more year of flexibility to help schools weather the inflation and supply chain crises, and to contact the millions of families who have not filled out school meal application forms for the last 2.5 years.

“Usually that outreach starts in the fall and you get the sign-ups going for the following school year,” said Katie Wilson, the executive director of the Urban School Food Alliance, which works with large school districts. “How do you educate these millions of families that that needs to be done again, and over the summer? It just won’t happen.”

Decades of research have shown how child nutrition programs aid academic achievement, school attendance, and student health outcomes. But the consequences of not extending the waivers will not be limited to families penalized by paperwork. Schools will also have less money to meet rising food prices and will face steeper financial penalties for not meeting all federal nutrition requirements, a challenge amid widespread product shortages. Some schools may decide to cut back on food offerings and even stop providing meals altogether. Others may slash budgets for their classrooms.

School lunches are not immune to the supply chain and inflation crisis

In normal times, the federal nutrition standards serve as important guidelines to ensure healthy options are available to students. Schools can only be fully reimbursed for the meals they serve if said meals meet those quality standards.

But these are not normal times, and school nutrition directors nationwide say they’ve never had so much difficulty stocking their cafeterias with basics like milk, meat, and vegetables. It’s become common for food orders to simply not arrive, or to be only partially filled.

A survey from the US Department of Agriculture released in March found 92 percent of School Food Authorities reported supply chain challenges, with products like chicken and bread among the most difficult products to procure. Nearly three-quarters of SFAs also reported staffing challenges, with acute shortages of cooks, drivers, and food prep employees.

A cafeteria worker places a tray of grilled cheese sandwiches into an oven at Richard Castro Elementary School in Denver, Colorado, in December 2020.
David Zalubowski/AP

Nutrition directors have had to get creative in finding emergency substitutes, including making shopping trips at 4 am to Costco and Kroger. Other school districts have cut back to one meal option, instead of the three or four they used to have. Without the federal waivers, schools could face financial penalties for all these decisions, if they opt to continue providing food at all, and would be under more pressure to hound families for unpaid school lunch debt.

Thanks to the waivers, the federal government has covered more of the cost of school meals than usual. This reimbursement flexibility has still just barely allowed school districts to tread water. “Ninety percent of schools are using the waivers and only 75 percent of them are breaking even,” Stacy Dean, USDA deputy undersecretary, told the Washington Post in March.

Without an extension, the average reimbursement could drop by nearly 40 percent. And this drop would occur as schools continue to face higher costs for food and labor. Grocery prices were 10.8 percent higher year-over-year than in April 2021, and are expected to increase substantially this year.

“We literally believe we’re going to go off a cliff June 30,” said Wilson. “And we simply don’t have the labor to go back to doing what we did [pre-pandemic]. We have school districts that are missing hundreds of people, so to expect them to account for every kid and what their family income is ridiculous.”

Congress could extend the waivers easily

Hundreds of advocacy groups, school districts, and elected officials have urged Congress to reauthorize the waivers for the next school year, at a price tag of roughly $11 billion.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) told Politico that the last-minute opposition to including school meal waivers in their March spending bill came from Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. A few weeks following this surprise, Stabenow introduced the Support Kids Not Red Tape Act to extend the waivers, but so far, it has formal backing only from Democrats, plus Republicans Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins. Even moderate Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema support the extension.

But Republican support might be higher than co-sponsorship suggests. Senate Agriculture Ranking Member John Boozman told Vox that he’s been meeting with school nutrition professionals, child hunger advocates, and other leaders about ensuring access to healthy meals at school. “Both sides of the aisle in the Senate want that outcome, and we remain engaged in good-faith talks about the best path forward,” he said, adding that he appreciates “the frequent input I receive from those on the front lines working tirelessly to feed children in need.”

McConnell has declined to comment publicly on the issue, and his office did not return Vox’s request for comment. But a GOP leadership aide told Politico that they do not see pandemic-era flexibilities as necessary anymore, and blamed the Biden administration for failing to include an extension of the meal waivers in its formal Covid spending bill request and 2023 budget request. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says he had been personally pressing Congress to extend the waivers for one more year.

Some child hunger activists suspect a crisis is being orchestrated to hurt Democrats in the midterms.

“It’s political. [Republicans] know this is going to explode in the summer, and there’s an election in November,” said Wilson. “So people are going to get outraged, families are going to have huge lunch debt, and they’re going to blame the legislators. No one is going to know Senator Stabenow submitted a bill to avoid this; they’re going to want to know why their kids are starving.”

Summer meal programs have already been affected

The federal summer meals program, established in 1975, operates in places where at least 50 percent of children in a geographical area have family incomes low enough to qualify for free or reduced-price meals during the regular school year. As the American Prospect noted, this program was designed with concentrated urban poverty in mind, and has always been less accessible to low-income children living in rural areas.

But the pandemic waivers exempted meal providers from this density requirement. Even in urban communities, the waivers have allowed providers to distribute summer meals to families in bulk, sparing parents from having to make daily trips to pick up food for their kids.

A cafeteria worker prepares free bag lunches for students at Deering High School in Portland, Maine, in July 2021. The meals were available to students doing summer programs as well as any children from the community 18 or under.
Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Thousands of sites that distributed federally subsidized meals last summer have already backed out from participating in the coming months, due to Congress’s dithering on extending the waivers.

“Many, many small, particularly faith-based organizations have said, no, we’re not going to go from ‘feed all children until June 1’ and then after that say now we need to know your family’s income to serve you,” said Wilson. “If the groups have to start identifying kids, that’s a nightmare.”

According to USDA data, there were 67,224 open sites providing summer meals in 2021. The No Kid Hungry campaign estimates that 1 out of every 5 of those sites will be unable to serve meals to all kids this coming summer, jeopardizing access for nearly 7 million children.

“Congress could fix this through so many avenues,” said Meier. “They don’t need a big relief package like Build Back Better. Congress can increase the flow of food to families and right now is just refusing to pull those levers.”