Since the pandemic hit in March 2020, school nutrition programs have been able to adapt and tackle the challenges of getting millions of children. Despite labor shortages, financial challenges stemming from rising food costs, and a fragile supply chain, school nutrition programs have had the support of government-issued waivers allowing leeway in a host of regulations and standards typically in place. School nutrition programs have been able to swap ingredients to cope with supply chain shortages. They’ve been able to package meals to send home to students when needed. Most significant of all? Universal free school meals to all students.
The situation is shifting. In March, a divided Congress prevented the universal school meals provision from being included in a major budget spending bill. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has expressed support for extending the waivers, but the USDA’s authority is constrained by Congress. Without Congressional action, these COVID-related child nutrition waivers are now set to expire on June 30.
While it’s true students were back in the classroom this past school year and many parents have returned to work, those who oppose waiver extensions say it’s time to go back to pre-pandemic operations. And yet, challenges in school nutrition are greater than ever. Lower participation rates, supply chain woes leading to inconsistent deliveries and canceled orders, and a mass exodus of labor are making for a dire situation. School nutrition directors and experts are worried the shift could be not only catastrophic for schools, but for students and families. These waivers have been a lifeline for families over the past two years, especially as inflation outpaces salary growth and continues to drive up the price of food.
While some hope remains for Congressional action to come in time for the fall return to school, states are taking matters into their own hands. California, Maine, and Vermont have passed universal free school meals legislation at the state level. Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, New York, and Colorado have legislation proposals in the works – a signal from constituents that there’s a strong desire to alleviate and end childhood hunger.