Pandemic Free School Lunches Likely to Come to an End

During the COVID-19 pandemic, expanded federal waivers provided free school lunches, year-round, for every American schoolchild. Congress has failed to reauthorize those waivers, paving the way for a catastrophic uptick in child hunger.

For the last 2+ years, American school kids, regardless of family financial circumstances, enjoyed free school lunches via a program to expand the benefit to all children during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, Congress enabled the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to implement child nutrition waivers  to reimburse schools at higher rates for serving free food to all students — whether the family qualified for free and reduced lunch or not.

The move also cut down on the prior burdensome meal waiver process: With these new, more flexible rules, families no longer have to fill out applications based on financial need to receive free lunches at school, and in turn, schools have been able to expand their food distribution methods, including handing out curbside meals to students during COVID lockdowns and expanding out-of-classroom meals, such as during summer and holiday breaks. In fact:

The waivers also dramatically expanded the USDA’s Summer Food Service Program, by eliminating geographical requirements, and allowing community groups to bring food directly to people in bulk.

The result was a cumulative 4.3bn meals distributed through the service program over the last two summers alone, a roughly thirtyfold increase over pre-pandemic levels, according to federal statistics.

Despite the program’s success and huge help to families, Congress has failed to reauthorize the free lunch waivers — just as American families struggle to recover from the pandemic and as rising inflation threaten economy stability. The waivers are set to expire on June 30, just as school districts around the country dismiss for summer break.

The Guardian reported on the severity of the situation:

But that will come to an end in weeks, as Congress has failed to include an extension of the waivers, which have allowed schools to offer school lunches as well as summer lunch handouts, enabling an estimated 10 million more students to get a free meal.

Noting what is left after free lunches disappear, according to The Guardian:

But millions of students cannot afford to pay a full-price school lunch, and a pre-pandemic survey by the School Nutrition Association found as many as 75% of school districts in America have unpaid student meal debt.

Not only with the departure of the waivers impact school kids and their families, schools themselves will suffer: “Once the waivers expire, schools will be fined for making any substitutions that don’t meet nutritional and meal planning guidelines – hitting already slim budgets.”

Stay tuned to Conduit Street for more on this and other pressing issues in education.

Read the full report from The Guardian.