CLEVELAND (WJW)– Starting early in the COVID-19 pandemic the USDA, with authorization from Congress, offered waivers that allowed school districts across the country to provide free meals to all school kids and gave districts a higher reimbursement rate for those meals.
The effort was intended to continue to provide lunches to students who were learning from home.
“Our meals through the USDA federal meal program are served in the school during the school day so Congress authorized USDA to enact some waivers that would provide some flexibility so that during the pandemic the continuity of nutritious meals could continue for students,” said Laura Kepler, the coordinator of child nutrition for the Akron Public Schools.
The effort was considered so successful that it was extended through the 2020-2021 school year and then extended a second time through the 2021-2022 school year with the waivers set to expire on June 30 after the current school year ends. Opponents of continuing free lunches for everyone believe it was never meant to be permanent.
Prior to the pandemic, parents would have to complete an application to be eligible for free or reduced lunches. The calculations were made based on the number of people in each applicant’s household and the household income.
But advocates said over the last couple of years, even as children have returned to school buildings, the ability to provide free meals to every student who wants one has proven successful for learning.
The School Nutrition Association is among those who would like to make free lunches for all students permanent.
“The loss of child nutrition waivers will devastate school meal programs, impacting millions of students and working families who increasingly depend on our meals,” said association president Beth Wallace, in a news release.
School Nutrition Association spokesperson Diane Pratt-Heavner said one worry is that some districts may have to take money away from teachers or education programs to pay once again for school meals.
“Of course, we all want to put this pandemic behind us, but school meal programs are operating nowhere close to normal right now they are just struggling with so many supply chain issues, staffing shortages that it’s just unrealistic to expect them to return to normal operations next fall,” Pratt-Havener said.
“School meal programs are expected to be financially self-sustaining. If the school meal program loses money, the school district is on the hook to pay that loss. So if the school meal programs go into debt, that’s going to go into teacher funds, funds for education textbooks and technology. Schools just really need one additional year of these waivers.”
Trump Administration Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Purdue was a strong proponent of the free meals through the pandemic, but the USDA is not authorized to continue it without approval from Congress.
“I know there’s some legislative action still trying to make meals universal in part of the school day and I think those models have been seen for the last two years how it can work and hopefully that could be something that could come out of this positively,” Kepler said.
Some larger districts like Cleveland Metropolitan School District and Akron Public Schools may not see an impact even if the free lunches are not renewed. Both districts provided free meals to all students who want them before the pandemic and expect to continue that even if the waivers are allowed to expire.
“This isn’t about requiring schools to serve every child a meal. This is about offering school meals to every child who is hungry,” Pratt-Heavner said.
And if the free meals for all students do expire, kids in the free and reduced program will be covered as they always have been.