Student Well-Being

Free School Meal Waivers Are Ending Soon. What Educators Need to Know

By Libby Stanford — June 02, 2022 4 min read
Girl holding food tray in school cafeteria
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School nutrition officials who have been able to offer free meals to all students during the pandemic regardless of family income are braced for that to end June 30 when the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s nutritional waivers are set to expire.

The USDA first released those waivers to the federal school nutrition program in 2020 to help schools serve students during closures brought on by the pandemic. The waivers have since been extended allowing schools to offer free meals to all students through the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years.

Ninety percent of school food authorities across the country used the waivers, according to the USDA, and school nutrition experts say they were instrumental in helping cafeterias survive the pandemic. Here are details about the waiver program and what’s next.

What are the nutritional waivers?

The waivers gave schools the ability to operate year-round under the rules of the USDA’s Seamless Summer Option, a nutritional program that provides meals to all students for free during the summer months.

They also gave schools around 90 cents more per meal in reimbursements, allowed schools to serve meals for pick-up, and gave schools flexibility to use COVID-19 safety precautions in lunchrooms.

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Norma Ordonez places a tray of grilled cheese sandwiches into an oven to warm as she prepares take-away lunches for students kept out of class because of the coronavirus at Richard Castro Elementary School early Friday, Dec. 18, 2020, in west Denver.
Norma Ordonez places sandwiches into an oven to warm as she prepares take-away lunches for students at Richard Castro Elementary School in Denver in 2020.
David Zalubowski/AP

School nutrition directors say the waivers helped them navigate school closures, COVID food safety precautions, staff shortages, and inflation all brought on by the pandemic. They also showed what it could be like for every student to eat for free, regardless of income restrictions.

The waivers eliminated the stigma that often comes when students can’t afford school meals or receive free meals because of their family income.

“I don’t think people even understand how important that was,” said Doug Davis, director of food services for Burlington Public Schools in Vermont. “Had people not been able to feed their kids the meals we were providing, this would have had a totally different outcome.”

Which students received free meals before the pandemic?

When the waivers expire, schools will return to pre-pandemic rules for nutrition services.

That means students and their families will have to prove their income falls within the parameters to qualify for free- and reduced-price meals through the National School Lunch Program. Over the 2019 federal fiscal year, the last year with data not impacted by the pandemic, 74.2 percent of all meals served through the program were free- or reduced-priced, according to the USDA. The income restrictions are as follows:

  • Families who make at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty line can receive free meals.
  • Families who make between 130 and 185 percent of the federal poverty line can receive reduced-price meals.
  • Families who make above 185 percent of the federal poverty line must pay full price for the meals.

Some schools have long been able to provide free and reduced-price meals to all students because they qualify for the Community Eligibility Provision. The provision applies to schools or groups of schools with 40 percent or more of students qualifying for free meals. The USDA publishes a complete list of schools that fall under the provision on its website.

“So many families, unfortunately, are right on the borderline, in terms of eligibility, for a free or reduced-price meal,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association, the national organization for school nutrition workers. “Particularly right now when we’re seeing the impact of inflation and rising gas costs, these [waivers] are so helpful to families struggling to put food on the table.”

What’s next?

In March, Congress failed to pass a measure to extend the waivers in a $1.5 trillion budget package, marking a likely end to universal free meals. There have been efforts to secure the program permanently on the national level, but supporters haven’t been able to pass a law.

Starting next school year, school cafeterias in California and Maine will be able to continue offering free meals to all students after lawmakers in those states established permanent programs. Vermont is expected to soon follow suit. The state is awaiting an official sign-off from Gov. Phil Scott on a universal free lunch bill.

Starting in the 2023-24 school year, Colorado schools may have free meals if voters approve a ballot measure supporting the program in the November election. Massachusetts, Minnesota, and New York all have bills sitting in the state legislature that would create a free meals program as well.

Everyone else will likely return to the pre-pandemic normal with students having to pay full-price for lunch unless they qualify for free- and reduced-price options. School nutrition departments will also lose the higher reimbursement rates, requiring them to charge more for meals.

The situation worries nutrition experts, who cite staff shortages and inflation impacting cafeterias. Davis said he believes Congress’s decision to not extend the waivers “will be looked back upon as a mistake.”

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