Congress reached a bipartisan, bicameral deal Tuesday to extend through the summer and upcoming 2022-23 school year child nutrition waivers that have proven crucial in allowing schools to provide meals to students and navigate pandemic-related disruptions.
“With 90% of our schools still facing challenges as they return to normal operations, this will give our schools and summer meal programs much-needed support to deal with ongoing food service issues,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow, Michigan Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, said in a statement. “Congress needs to act swiftly to pass this critical help.”
Ongoing supply chain disruptions, inflation and rising gas prices produced a maelstrom for school nutrition teams this school year – coming on the heels of a year defined by pandemic-related disruptions that required them to be creative to ensure students were fed, especially in communities with overwhelming food insecurity.
The nutrition waivers, which were set to expire at the end of June, have provided schools with generous reimbursement rates and allowed them flexibility from complying with meal patterns and nutrition standard requirements. School nutrition directors say that the waivers have been crucial in allowing school meal programs to operate at all given the unpredictable landscape.
A report published last month by the Food Research Action Center shows that among 62 of the country’s largest school districts, 95% reported that the waivers helped reduce child hunger in their school district and upward of 80% also said the waivers made it easier for parents, eliminated the stigma associated with receiving free school meals, eased administrative work and supported academic achievement.
The $3 billion deal was reached by Stabenow, Republican Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas, the ranking member of the agriculture committee, Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, and Republican Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, the ranking member of that committee.
“As I visit with our school nutrition professionals, it is quite clear that they need continued flexibilities to cope with ongoing supply chain issues,” Boozman said in a statement. “I am pleased that after lengthy bipartisan negotiations we were able to come to an agreement to extend the waivers in a manner that is fully paid for.”
The legislation would allow students who are eligible for reduced-price meals to receive free meals, would increase federal reimbursements for every school lunch by 40 cents and every school breakfast by 15 cents. It would also extend flexibilities for schools unable to meet certain nutrition standards due to supply chain disruptions, as well as extend the current waivers for the 2022 summer meal programs.
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“School nutrition professionals have withstood crippling supply chain breakdowns, rising prices and labor shortages in their efforts to provide students healthy meals, at a time when families are struggling with higher costs,” says Beth Wallace, president of the School Nutrition Association. “With crucial federal waivers on the verge of expiring, this agreement offers school meal programs a lifeline to help build back toward normal operations.”
The agreement comes on the heels of an intense lobbying effort by school nutrition groups, state education chiefs, district superintendents, principals, school nutrition directors, teachers and community organizations, who collectively sent tens of thousands of letters over the last two months urging them to extend the waivers, which were first enacted at the outset of the pandemic.
The letters describe ongoing struggles to obtain enough food and supplies for students, with manufacturers discontinuing products ranging from low-sodium chicken breasts to low-fat milk and yogurt. School nutrition directors have reported shortages of as many as 150 to 200 menu items per order, which send short-staffed school nutrition teams scrambling to secure substitutions, as well as unprecedented price hikes, including a 280% increase in the cost of a case of the types of sanitary gloves kitchen workers use and a 137% increase on whole grain bread.
“We are grateful that a deal has come together to help address the immense challenges facing schools and community organizations working tirelessly to feed kids this summer and during the school year,” says Lisa Davis, senior vice president of Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign . “This issue couldn’t be more urgent with waivers expiring in nine days and summer meals programs already up and running.”
Congress is expected to clear the legislation this week, in time to prevent the expiration of the waivers on June 30.