The bipartisan omnibus bill Congress unveiled Wednesday to keep the government running does not prolong child nutrition waivers that have allowed schools to serve free meals to all pupils and played a crucial role in combating child malnutrition throughout the pandemic.
The omission comes despite an intense lobbying effort by school administrators and child nutrition experts – one that delivered tens of thousands of emails into congressional inboxes by Tuesday evening –
who warned that refusing to allow the U.S. Department of Agriculture to extend the waivers will result in a catastrophic blow to schools’ ability to serve meals.
“We urged Congress to include this extension in the omnibus to ensure that USDA can provide critical flexibilities to school meal programs as they continue to face significant supply-chain challenges and increased operating costs,
and not disrupt the work they do to keep kids fed as the pandemic wears on,” says Noelle Ellerson Ng, the associate executive director of advocacy and governance at AASA, the School Superintendents Association.
The provision they had been pushing to include in the omnibus package – and one that a vast coalition of congressional Democrats supported – would have allowed the USDA to extend the waivers, which were first granted in March 2020 to ensure that schools, local government, and nonprofits could continue feeding children when they were forced to shutter at the onset of the pandemic.
The waivers are set to expire in June, and the fight over their fate comes at a time of tremendous instability and strain on schools’ capacity to provide meals, given the ongoing pandemic, supply-chain issues, inflation making food more expensive, staffing shortages, and uncertainty over how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will drive up gas and oil prices.
But earlier this week, news reports detailed how key Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, opposed extending the waivers as part of the omnibus package, arguing that the waiver was never meant to be permanent and that the $11 billion price tag to extend it for another year wasn’t palatable to Republicans concerned about the deficit-increasing.
“Whether the opposing Republicans personally opposed or opposed on behalf of the people of their states or opposed on behalf of people in their caucus, at the end of the day this is a no-win move that will hurt kids, leave kids hungry and reverse so much good that started from an overwhelmingly bipartisan policy proposal,” Ellerson Ng says.
The superintendents association represents superintendents from the great majority of the country’s 13,000 school districts, including those in rural, suburban and urban locations that operate in communities that embrace various political and educational ideologies.
“I can typically – and have a professional responsibility to – try to see the ‘why’ or rationale behind a conflicting opinion,” Ellerson Ng adds.
“That is not the case here. The closest ‘why’ I can come up with is a refusal to admit that the depths of child hunger in the school setting will endure throughout the 2022-23 school year.”
That the waiver was not extended to the omnibus bill, despite pressure from Democrats, who control both chambers of Congress, school administrators, and child nutrition specialists, indicates a new trend of ending pandemic-era aid despite schools still operating during a pandemic.
The funding bill did include $29 billion for child nutrition programs that Biden requested, but school nutrition advocates are worried about a cascade of implications, including a 40 percent decrease in reimbursement for school meals that will go into effect at the beginning of the school year – from $4.56 to an estimated $2.91.
“That’s a really big deal,” says Lisa Davis, senior vice president of No Kid Hungry. Schools across the country—urban, suburban, and rural—have been reporting that food vendors are canceling contracts at the last minute due to food price escalation and supply chain problems.”
While looking for a new contract, they found that pricing was extremely exorbitant. As a result, their overall costs have increased dramatically.”
School districts and community groups are calling Davis in a panic, fearful that they will not have enough food for the summer months without the waiver extension, Davis says.
If the waivers aren’t renewed, Davis adds, “school districts and community organizations across the country may be forced to drastically reduce or possibly cease their summer food service.”
It’s just not going to be possible for them to maintain their current level of activity. We also know that summer is the hungriest time of year for many youngsters because they are out of school and don’t have school meals to eat. As a result, this is a major issue.
School districts will no longer be permitted to substitute alternative foods for those that aren’t readily available due to supply-chain concerns if the waiver extension isn’t granted. In fact, they will now be penalized financially if they do not satisfy their vegetable, fruit, or whole-grain criteria.
Schools will also lose the ability to serve pandemic-friendly meals like grab-and-go stations or classroom distribution of meals, both of which have proven critical in times of staff shortages.
The growing cost of gasoline, according to Davis, is already causing some suppliers to include extra fuel surcharges in their contracts as school districts plan ahead for the fall of the following academic year’s lunch service.
It’s unlikely that supply-chain concerns and food price rises will dissipate in the coming months, she says. A lack of money will have a significant impact on the organization’s ability to offer food programs, which is why we are really concerned.
We need to provide our schools and community organizations with as much freedom as possible so that they can respond to the issues that our world has faced since March of 2020,” she says.
There is now more supply chain and food price inflation as well as workforce challenges than only health-related ones. There are still a lot of huge problems, and they’re not going away any time soon.