Saturday, September 23, 2023

It would be a disaster to let federal school meal exemptions expire

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Shreya Christina
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One of the most fundamental and intuitive facts about learning is that it’s hard to concentrate, or really do much of anything, when you’re hungry. There is a hierarchy of needs and stomachs come out on top.

Yet youth advocates are staring at a chilling deadline. June 30 is the last day for Congress to reauthorize a series of waivers allowing public schools to creatively deliver meals to students during the pandemic. Originally passed in March 2020, the waivers gave schools the flexibility to address not only the challenges of distance learning and Covid-19, but also the supply chain crisis, shortage of school staff and steep supermarket inflation. The exemptions also expanded eligibility for school meals, creating an additional 10 million students until Free breakfast and lunch every day

Education leaders assumed Congress would extend meal flexibility for another year. The exemptions, which expire at the end of June, have been extended twice before on a twofold basis. In February, Democratic Representatives Abigail Spanberger and Suzanne Bonamici and Republican Representatives Brian Fitzpatrick and John Katko introduced the Keeping school meals flexible to extend them one last time until June 2023, but when Congress passed its $1.5 trillion spending bill in March, the language for school meals was missing. Proponents were stunned, saying this decision alone has jeopardized access to summer meals for nearly 7 million children.

“There is no urgency and no political will to even have this conversation,” said Jillien Meier, director of the Not a hungry child campaign. Frankly, this is not a priority for Congress and the White House. People are really focused on a ‘return to normal’… people don’t talk about it and they have no idea this crisis is looming.”

Many people would certainly like the exemption for universal free meals to be allowed made permanent, reducing stigma for children and reducing administrative burdens on parents and school districts. But proponents say that’s not what this fight is about. Instead, they want one more year of flexibility to help schools weather inflation and supply chain crises, as well as contact the millions of families who haven’t completed a school meal request form in the past 2.5 years.

“Usually that outreach starts in the fall and you get the enrollments for the next school year,” said Katie Wilson, the executive director of the Urban School Food Alliance, which works with major school districts. “How do you teach these millions of families that that has to happen again in the summer? It’s just not going to happen.”

Decades of research have shown how infant nutrition programs help academic performanceschool attendanceand student health outcomes. But the consequences of not renewing the exemptions will not be limited to families who are penalized with paperwork. Schools will also have less money to meet rising food prices and face tougher financial penalties if they fail to meet all federal nutritional requirements, a challenge amid widespread product shortages. Some schools may decide to cut back on food supply and even stop providing meals altogether. Others may be cutting budgets for their classrooms.

School lunches are not immune to the supply chain and the inflation crisis

In normal times, the federal nutritional standards serve as important guidelines to ensure that students the healthiest options possible† Schools can only be fully reimbursed for the meals they serve if those meals meet those quality standards.

But these aren’t normal times, and rural school nutrition directors say they’ve never had so much trouble stocking their cafeterias with staples like milk, meat and vegetables. It has become common for food orders to simply not arrive or to be only partially filled.

A study by the United States Department of Agriculture released in March found that 92 percent of school food authorities reported supply chain problems, with products like chicken and bread being among the hardest to obtain. Nearly three-quarters of SFAs also reported staffing problems, with acute shortages of cooks, drivers and food prep staff.

A cafeteria worker places a tray of grilled cheese sandwiches in an oven at Richard Castro Elementary School in Denver, Colorado in December 2020.
David Zalubowski/AP

Nutrition directors had to be creative in finding emergency replacement products, including taking 4 a.m. shopping trips to Costco and Kroger. Other school districts have cut to one meal option, rather than the three or four they used to have. Without the federal waivers, schools could face financial penalties for all of these decisions, if they choose to continue providing food at all, and would face more pressure to hunting families for unpaid school lunch debt.

Thanks to the waivers, the federal government has covered more of the cost of school meals than usual. This flexibility in reimbursements has only just allowed school districts to tread water. “Ninety percent of schools are taking advantage of the waivers, and only 75 percent of them are break even,” said Stacy Dean, USDA deputy undersecretary. the Washington Post in March

Without an extension, the average compensation could drop by nearly 40 percent. And this decline would occur as schools continue to face higher costs for food and labor. Grocery prices were 10.8 percent higher year on year then in April 2021, and are expected to increase significantly this year.

“We literally believe we’re going to go off a cliff on June 30,” Wilson said. “And we just don’t have the labor to go back to what we were doing [pre-pandemic]† We have school districts that are missing hundreds of people, so to expect them to account for every child and what their family income is is ridiculous.”

Congress could easily extend the exemptions

Hundreds of advocacy groups, school districts and elected officials have urged Congress to reauthorize the exemptions for the next school year, at a price tag of about $11 billion.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) told Politico that last-minute opposition to including school meal waivers in their March spending bill came from Republican minority leader Mitch McConnell. A few weeks after this surprise, Stabenow introduced the Support children, no red tape to extend the waivers, but so far it has only formal support from Democrats, plus Republicans Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins. Even moderate Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema support the extension.

But Republican support may be higher than co-sponsorship suggests. Senate Agriculture Ranking Member John Boozman told cafemadrid he has met with school nutritionists, child hunger advocates and other leaders about ensuring access to healthy meals in schools. “Both sides of the aisle in the Senate want that outcome, and we continue to talk in good faith about the best way forward,” he said, adding that he “understands the frequent input I receive from those on the front lines who work tirelessly.” appreciates.” to feed children in need.”

McConnell has declined to comment publicly on the matter and his office has not responded to cafemadrid’s request for comment. But a GOP leadership assistant told Politico that they no longer see flexibility as necessary in the pandemic era, and blamed the Biden administration for not including an extension of meal waivers in its formal Covid request for spending invoice and Budget request 2023† Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack say he had personally urged Congress to extend the waivers for another year.

Some child hunger activists suspect a crisis is being orchestrated during the midterm elections to hurt Democrats.

“It’s political. [Republicans] know that this is going to explode in the summer and there will be elections in November,” Wilson said. “So people are going to be outraged, families are going to have huge lunch debts and they’re going to blame the lawmakers. No one will know that Senator Stabenow has introduced a bill to prevent this; they will want to know why their children are starving.”

Summer meal programs have already been hit

The Federal Summer Meal Programfounded in 1975, operates in places where at least 50 percent of children in a geographic area have household incomes low enough to qualify for free or low-cost meals during the regular school year. As noted the US prospect:Designed with concentrated urban poverty in mind, this program has always been less accessible to low-income children living in rural areas.

But the exemption from pandemic is exempt meal providers of this density requirement. Even in urban communities, the waivers have allowed providers to provide bulk summer meals to families, eliminating the need for parents to make daily trips to pick up food for their children.

A cafeteria worker prepares free packed lunches for students at Deering High School in Portland, Maine, in July 2021. Meals were available to students attending summer programs and community children aged 18 or under.
Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Thousands of sites that handed out federally subsidized meals last summer have already withdrawn from participating in the coming months, amid Congressional hesitation about extending the waivers.

“Many, many small, especially faith-based organizations have said, no, we are not going from ‘feeding all children until June 1’ and then saying we need to know your family’s income now to serve you. said Wilson. “If the groups have to start identifying children, it’s a nightmare.”

According to USDA data, in 2021 there were 67,224 open sites offering summer meals. The No Kid Hungry campaign estimates that 1 in 5 of those sites will not be able to provide meals for all children by next summer, endangering access for nearly 7 million children.

“Congress could resolve this through so many avenues,” Meier said. “They don’t need a big help package like Build Back Better. Congress can increase the flow of food to families and just refuses to pull those handles at this point.”


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