Participation in school lunch programs has dropped by 8.8 million since the 2018–2019 school year, despite the waiver programs, according to the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC). This is likely due to a number of key factors, says Crystal FitzSimons, FRAC’s director of School and Out-of-School Time Programs. Children were learning remotely for much of the past two years, and parents may have lacked access to a car or perhaps had to work when school lunches were available for collection. Still, without the programs, the pandemic’s impacts on school lunch availability would have been far worse.
The waivers most dramatically expanded the USDA’s Summer Food Service Program. By eliminating certain eligibility requirements, more community groups were able to provide 4.3 billion meals to children between school years, a 30-fold increase since prepandemic periods. Now school districts are already being impacted by the looming waiver expiration. “We have a huge summer hunger gap every year when millions of kids lose access to meals as schools close,” says FitzSimons. Even if Congress passed an extension tomorrow, the community organizations that provide these meals likely won’t be able to pivot fast enough to get programs up and running.
Virtually all school meal programs are struggling due to the pandemic, says Pratt-Heavner. A recent survey by the SNA found that 98% of the 1,212 school meal directors surveyed reported that their programs were negatively affected by supply chain shortages; 95% indicated staff attraction and retention was a challenge; and 97% of respondents were impacted by higher food and packaging prices. Currently, with the waivers, most schools receive $4.56 in reimbursement for each school lunch served, says Pratt-Heavner. But without them, most would only receive about $3.75—a critical difference when every cent counts.
Cafeteria workers are also stressed amid food shortages. A woman from Arkansas told Guardian that she’d been struggling to order more nutritious items amid shortages. “It’s not just the foods that are expensive, they are getting harder to find,” she said. Under the waiver she’s been able to make cheaper, more readily available substitutions on the fly, regardless of whether they meet nutritional and meal planning requirements. But that flexibility is also set to expire June 30—slamming school meal programs’ already tight budgets as they scramble to buy expensive alternatives.
FitzSimons is “holding out hope” that some sort of congressional action may come in time for the fall return to school. And if an extension does pass, the benefits would be manifold: More of a school’s breakfast and lunch budgets could go toward actually buying nutritious food, she says, since they’d reduce the administrative cost of qualifying kids, one by one, for free or low-priced meals. And generally, access to school meals can help alleviate poverty, lead to better health outcomes for students, and increase a child’s ability to learn. Plus, when free food is available to all students regardless of family income, “there’s no more stigma or shame in taking a meal,” says Pratt-Heavner.
In the meantime, as advocates wait for congressional action, states are taking matters into their own hands. California, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Vermont, and Colorado have all either passed, proposed, or are about to vote on their own universal free school meal legislation—signaling a strong desire among some constituents for the waivers to continue long term .
But if people are expecting government interference at a national level before June 30, senators and congressional delegates need to hear from voters on “how important this is and how bad the situation is going to be if they don’t extend it,” FitzSimons says . “This isn’t rocket science; we know kids need access to nutritious food to be able to focus and learn.”