UPDATE: Congress Spares Some Pandemic Free School Lunches

After the threat of expiration,  Congress took bipartisan action this week and reauthorized free meals for all American school children for the summer and 2022-2023 school year.

Earlier this month, we reported that a successful program during the COVID-19 pandemic to provide all American school kids with free meals, despite family income and means, was at risk of expiring without congressional intervention. The threat came as Americans face historic inflation and uncertain finances.

On June 21, Congress voted to extend the meal waivers, which were set to expire at the end of the month. The $3 billion bipartisan deal will continue to provide free meals to American kids through the upcoming 2022-2023 school year.

US News reported on the expansive coalition that worked to ensure the program was spared:

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.

Free pandemic meals

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.

Read the full US News report.

Prior Conduit Street coverage: Pandemic Free School Lunches Likely to Come to an End