Free meal program will end with summer when kids go back to school

For the past two years, every student in the country has been able to eat at school for free.

Starting this fall that may no longer be the case, and Lisa McCormick, a New Jersey children’s advocate, is calling on lawmakers to do something about that.

“Every child deserves three meals a day, and all the people working in our schools to feed the students should be supported in this challenging time,” said McCormick, who noted that even as inflation and supply chain issues make it harder to put food on the table, federal pandemic aid for the school meal program is running out.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Congress passed a bill that let all students across the country eat for free at school, regardless of family income. Lawmakers also paused some of the rules on what and how they can eat.

Families previously had to meet income requirements to receive free or reduced-price meals under the National School Lunch Program, and unless lawmakers take action, some children will be forced to pay for meals.

Lisa McCormick said children cannot learn when they are hungry.

“At the height of the pandemic, children were able to take their food with them and in some cases, the child didn’t have to be there at all. The parent could actually come and pick up their meal and bring it home to them,” said McCormick, who is asking Congress to ensure that children across America will continue to have access to healthy, fresh, American-grown food.

Research demonstrates that children from families who are not sure where their next meal may come from are more likely to have lower math scores and repeat a grade, among other challenges.

“A child’s chance for a bright tomorrow starts with getting enough food to eat today,” said McCormick. “In the United States, 12 million children may not know where they will get their next meal.”

School food service departments across the country have experienced challenges with supply chain issues and increasing food costs but Congress extended waivers that gave schools more flexibility in what they can serve students and how.

In late June, Congress passed a last minute compromise temporarily extending those waivers. President Joe Biden signed the Keep Kids Fed Act on June 25, 2022, extending partial school meal flexibilities through the next school year five days before they were set to expire.

Schools have felt the strain of rising food, gas and labor costs. Waivers passed by Congress at the start of the pandemic gave relief from regulations that monitor how, when and who gets school meals.

All kids will be able to eat for free through the end of this summer. But starting in the fall, schools will have to start charging again — unless they can get grants or find some other way to cover the cost.

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

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

Before the pandemic, federal laws required schools meet specific nutrition requirements that governed what they could and could not serve students. They had to serve their meals in “congregate” settings, like a cafeteria or a park.

And in the summer, only areas that had 50% of kids qualifying for free or reduced-priced meals can operate a summer meal program.

Those rules went out the window during the pandemic.

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

The school meal waivers allowed for students to grab lunches to-go and or be delivered via school buses.

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

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