Federal waivers that let schools feed all students free meals throughout the COVID-19 pandemic will expire this summer, leaving school nutrition directors braced as supply chain issues and spiking costs eat up their already tight budgets.
They also fear hungry children may fall through the cracks as schools rush to identify and enroll eligible families for free and reduced-price meals that require paperwork they haven’t had to complete in more than two years.
“It’s pulling off the Band-Aid and hoping you don’t bleed to death. That’s where we’re at,” said Kelly Orton, the director of child nutrition for the Salt Lake City School District.
The waivers allowed school meal programs to operate year-round under the rules of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s summer meals program, which provides schools about 90 cents extra for each meal served than what they get under the regular lunch program. Without that extra aid, some school nutrition directors worry inflation will make it difficult to stay out of the red financially.
School administrators had been hopeful that Congress would extend the USDA’s authority to waive certain meal requirements, but lawmakers failed to include that measure, and $11 billion to cover the costs, in the $1.5 trillion spending bill President Joe Biden signed into law Tuesday.
The temporary easing of federal meal regulations—extended several times since Congress first authorized them in March 2020—removed the requirement that schools and community sites must be located in high-poverty areas to serve universal free meals through the summer program. The looser rules allowed schools to distribute take-home meals during remote learning and to feed students in classrooms, rather than lunchrooms, as part of COVID-19 precautions.
Warnings of ‘profound and long-term’ consequences
About 90 percent of school food programs have operated under the waivers, allowing them to provide free meals to all students, the USDA found in a survey released March 4. Schools that used the summer meal waiver year-round were less likely to operate under a budget deficit than those that operated under standard school lunch and breakfast program rules, the survey found.
Failure to include the meal waivers in the federal spending bill came despite last-minute pleas from education and anti-poverty groups, which argued schools need another year of flexibility.
It's pulling off the Band-Aid and hoping you don’t bleed to death.
“This is critical,” 26 organizations wrote in a public letter March 9. “Research reinforces that when children go hungry, it has profound and long-term consequences on their physical health and development, their ability to learn, and future economic success.”
A spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association, which advocates on behalf of school meal providers, said the organization is awaiting word from the USDA on what, if any, flexibility the federal agency can offer schools without congressional approval for additional spending.
A spokesperson for the Agriculture Department said officials there were “disappointed” that they weren’t able to extend the pandemic waivers. In an email response to questions from Education Week, he did not detail any specific planned actions, saying only that the Biden administration “will continue to do everything we can to support leaders running these programs during this difficult time.”
Shortages of milk and grains—and the drivers who deliver them
The meal waivers also eased regulations on what items schools could buy and serve, helping nutrition directors quickly adjust to sudden changes in product availability that were driven by growing costs in fuel, staffing, and materials for their suppliers.
“It’s hit and miss,” said Randy Russell, the superintendent of the 900-student Freeman school district in Rockford, Wash. “One week you are running out of milk. The next week you are running out of grains.”
Orton, the Salt Lake City director, said his district had run out of milk, which is a required part of school lunches, multiple times since January, at times using the federal flexibility to serve juice instead. Once, it was because the dairy plant couldn’t find cartons to package it. Once, the plant shut down for a day because too many workers were out sick.
Another time, when the delivery service couldn’t operate because it lacked drivers, Orton drove a school vehicle to the plant himself and distributed the milk.
“I’m an old farm boy, so I got out there and delivered to 18 of our schools,” he said.
In the March USDA survey, about 60 percent of school meal providers said they expect higher food and supplies costs to last into next school year.
Hiring high school students to work the lunch line
Staffing is another huge cost, district officials told Education Week. That’s because schools, short-staffed in a variety of departments, compete against restaurants for nutrition staff, even as they raise wages to attract new workers.
Salt Lake City schools, which have a $13 million meal budget to feed the district’s 20,000 students, raised wages from $13.50 per hour to $15 per hour to meet staffing challenges. The additional federal funding provided through the meal waivers helped pay for the higher wages, Orton said. But the program needs 91 hourly employees to operate, and it is still short 30 people.
Orton has met with local businesses to ask if their employees can work the lunch shift. He’s even paid high school students to work the lunch line in their own schools, paying them an hour of wages for 20 minutes of work.
Directors of school meal programs, who operate separate budgets with tight margins during typical years, now expect they may have to rely on support from their districts’ overall budgets to cover heightened costs.
“Children will still get fed, but school districts now have to make tough decisions,” Orton said.
Helping hungry families navigate red tape
When the waivers expire June 30, districts will have to return to pre-pandemic rules, which means they will only be able to serve free summer meals in high-poverty neighborhoods.
After more than two years of increased meal sites and more flexible distribution, they will have to communicate with parents about the changes.
And some families who may qualify for free or reduced-price meals may have never had to fill out the paperwork, said Russell, the Freeman superintendent.
The district plans an outreach campaign that includes checking records for younger students whose older siblings may have qualified before the pandemic; making coaches, teachers, counselors, and community organizations aware of the changes; and communicating with students directly about what they need to do to sign up.
Under a federal program called community eligibility, some high-poverty schools in other districts are able to serve free meals to all students, even without the pandemic waivers. But the enrollment in Freeman schools is relatively low-poverty, making it even more important to locate and help students who need it, Russell said.
“You’ve got everybody from a student who is couch surfing and living on their own, all the way up to someone living in a really nice million-dollar home and everyone in between,” he said, adding that the waivers have “really helped level the playing field. There is no concern for any student from any family about accessing breakfast or lunch.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 30, 2022 edition of Education Week as Schools Warn of Hunger, Higher Costs When Federal Meal Waivers End