Biden Signs Bill Extending School Meal Exemptions : NPR


Food service workers in the Los Angeles Unified School District pack hundreds of free school lunches into plastic bags.

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Food service workers in the Los Angeles Unified School District pack hundreds of free school lunches into plastic bags.

Damian Dovarganes/AP

President Joe Biden signed the Keep Kids Fed Act on Saturday morning, extending partial school meal flexibilities into the next school year five days before they expire.

Schools have felt the pressure of rising food, gasoline and labor costs. Waivers passed by Congress early in the pandemic eased regulations that control how, when and who gets school meals.

Congress was unable to agree in time to include an extension of the waivers in the budget signed by President Biden in March after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell opposed the extension.

Earlier this week, a bipartisan group of lawmakers brokered a deal to expand some of the exemptions, days before they were due to expire. On Friday morning, the House approved Senate changes to a nearly $3 billion plan to extend all summer pandemic school meal waivers and supply chain flexibilities and increase federal reimbursements for school through the 2022-23 school year.

The deal comes after Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, blocked the bill in the Senate, urging lawmakers to bring back the “reduced price” category of the National School Lunch Program.

Before the pandemic, meals were free, reduced or full price for students. During the pandemic, waivers allowed all meals to be free. The House bill included only free and full-price options.

The bill would fully extend all waivers during the summer to allow for meal deliveries and grab-and-go options for students. It would also extend supply chain flexibilities and higher federal reimbursement rates than before the pandemic through the 2022-2023 school year.

But the biggest omission is the exclusion of flexibilities that suspended the eligibility requirements for free and reduced-price meal applications, giving all students free meals.


Teachers Jennifer Scandle, left, and Renee Roberts, right, deliver a lunch to Kelsi Clarke, center, from a school bus.

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Teachers Jennifer Scandle, left, and Renee Roberts, right, deliver a lunch to Kelsi Clarke, center, from a school bus.

Brynn Anderson/AP

Senate Agriculture Chair and bill sponsor Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., told NPR there would never have been 10 Republican members in favor of extending all free meals. The eventual commitment to return to pre-pandemic meal categories was necessary to ensure schools received other needed assistance.

“We’re not completely back to normal as far as the pandemic is concerned,” Stabenow said, noting that schools are still facing high food costs and supply chain disruptions. “As many as a third of schools may not have been able to provide school meals at all without [any waivers].”

What is being given up?

Before the pandemic, federal law required schools to meet specific nutrition requirements governing what they could and could not serve students. They had to serve their meals in “congregate” settings, such as a cafeteria or a park. Families had to meet income requirements to receive free or reduced-price meals under the National School Lunch Program. And in the summer, only areas that had 50% of children qualifying for free or reduced-price meals can operate a summer meal program.

Those rules went out the window during the pandemic.

“[Waivers] really provided a lifeline, because in many rural and suburban communities, poverty is so widely dispersed across large geographies,” said Jillien Meier, director of partnerships and campaign strategies at No Kid Hungry. “So even if 49% of your children in If your community qualifies for free or reduced-price meals under the National School Lunch Program, you may not operate an open summer meal site.”

School meal waivers allowed students to take packed lunches or have them delivered via school buses.

They also provided flexibility for schools when supply chain disruptions began and never quite went away.

“You can order fresh fruits and vegetables and you get donuts. You order 5,000 boxes of something and you can get 20. The supply chain is a mess,” said Katie Wilson, executive director of the Urban School Food Alliance. “We had a district where a big production company they’ve worked with for years called them up and said, ‘We’re no longer serving schools. We’ll give you two weeks’ notice.'”

According to the School Nutrition Association, more than 98% of school meal programs reported shortages of menu items, supplies and packaging, as well as items discontinued by manufacturers.

School staff made trips to grocery stores to purchase missing ingredients. But substitute foods from a store or other supplier may be more expensive or may not meet nutritional standards.

The waivers also provided additional funds for schools to support rising food and labor costs.

Mary Rochelle, coordinator of programs, events and grants for the Boulder Valley School District Food Services Department in Colorado, said one of her bread vendors raised prices by 50% without warning.

Kristen Hennessey, director of Food and Nutrition Services for Plymouth-Canton Community Schools in Michigan, has also seen a 51% increase in beef and 30% increase in chicken in her district, and the wages of employees will increase by 31% next school year.

The federal government already reimburses schools for a portion of the cost of each meal, a rate that has increased with waivers. The congressional proposal would continue to reimburse schools for food at higher levels than before the pandemic, but less than the original exemptions.

“For about what you would pay for a latte, schools are expected to put together a meal that contains milk, fruits and vegetables, protein and grains,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations for the American Nutrition Association. School. “The pandemic and the fallout from the supply chain and labor challenges that the shows are facing have just blown up the model.”

Get rid of free meals

Schools are preparing to raise meal prices, so those students who no longer qualify for free meals will pay more than they did before the pandemic.

Some schools are preparing to raise meal prices, meaning families who were paying before the pandemic will now pay more when waivers expire. Only students with a family income of 185% of the poverty level or less will qualify.

In anticipation of expiration, USDA extended some flexibilities to states that chose to use them. But only Congress can change the eligibility requirements for free meals.

Reaching families with younger children who need to go through the process for the first time, access to technology, language barriers and confusing applications pose challenges for school administrators, Rochelle said, especially with the months-long congressional limbo. .


Children pick up their free meal at East Silver Spring Elementary School.

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Manuel Balce Cenata/AP


Children pick up their free meal at East Silver Spring Elementary School.

Manuel Balce Cenata/AP

“Even if we contact them and ask them to fill out the application and they do, there’s a high chance they won’t qualify because the cap is so low and it doesn’t change based on where you live,” Rochelle said. “So in the Boulder area, our housing costs are three times the national average, and that doesn’t count.”

Looking beyond the expanse

Regardless of the extensions, a cliff will inevitably come for schools and families unless Congress passes a more permanent solution.

The creation of virtual schools during the pandemic allowed students to continue to have access to meals that they would not otherwise have. Despite McConnell’s attempt to use the waivers to force schools to return in person, many districts are continuing with virtual learning.

“We ended up creating a very successful K-12 virtual academy within our district,” Hennessey said, adding that the virtual academy plans to remain regardless of what happens with waivers. “I started looking at the list of kids who were virtual: 46% of them qualified for free, reduced-price meals next year. I won’t be able to provide those kids with a meal.”

Advocates for food and nutrition in schools want this to be addressed at the September White House conference on food and hunger. Hennessey attended one of the White House listening sessions this month. in preparation for the conference. Advocates told officials that food access was revoked by not pushing for universal free meals extended for another year.

“You’re removing accessibility,” Hennessey recalled saying. “So you want us to talk about ways to [make food accessible]. Well, you just took off a great way to do it and ran a pilot for a year.”

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