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Advocates say a hungry summer looms if Congress can’t extend school meal waivers

Summer is always the hungry season for America’s children — when school is not in session, many students don’t get enough to eat. But anti-hunger groups are warning this summer could be worse than usual, since many schools have been forced to scale back or eliminate their summer meals programs because the waivers that vastly expanded access to school food during the pandemic are set to expire on June 30, unless Congress takes action.

“We are very, very concerned that millions of kids are going to lose access to meals this summer,” said Crystal FitzSimons, director of School and Out-of-School-Time Programs at the Food Research & Action Center.

On Wednesday, House Appropriations Committee chair Rosa DeLauro said the House “will be doing something” to extend the waivers, but there is considerable opposition to additional spending from Republicans. In a tweet on Thursday, Rules Committee chair Jim McGovern said he is working with Speaker Nancy Pelosi to extend the waivers. And earlier this week, Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow told Punchbowl News that bicameral negotiations are underway on a deal to at least partially extend the waivers.

Given the uncertainty in Congress, advocates will keep pressing lawmakers to act. “We are continuing to call on Congress to extend the waivers and will breathe a sigh of relief when they take action,” FitzSimons said.

Child hunger is “a non-partisan” issue, said Monica Gonzales, director of federal advocacy for No Kid Hungry, a campaign of the anti-hunger group Share Our Strength. “We really need a bipartisan solution here, and we should make sure that when it comes to feeding kids, all of us are working together and sitting around the table to find solutions.”

Diane Pratt-Heavner, the School Nutrition Association’s director of media relations, said the sooner the waivers are extended, the more likely it is that schools will be able to offer or expand summer meals programs. Beyond that, “this would be a huge, enormous relief for families and school meal programs next fall,” she said.

Before the pandemic, schools often struggled to reach hungry kids in the summer — only about one in seven students who got free or reduced-cost meals during the school year got summer meals, FitzSimons said. Pre-pandemic, schools and community organizations could offer free summer meals only in communities or neighborhoods where more than half of the students qualified for free or reduced-cost lunch. This meant the program didn’t reach low-income kids living in mixed-income communities. But under the waivers, free summer meals can be served in any community, regardless of income level.

And while students normally have to eat on-site — which poses logistical and transportation challenges for families — the waivers let families pick up multiple days’ worth of food to take home.

The expansion of the summer meals programs, along with the uptick in need, spurred a big increase in participation; in 2020, three times more summer meals were served than in 2019, according to a recent report from No Kid Hungry. Demand remained high in the summer of 2021 — even as things edged back toward normal, more than twice as many meals were served than in summer 2019.

“To see that get reversed is just really concerning,” FitzSimons said.

A USDA spokesperson said the agency does not have projections for how many summer meals will be served this summer, but No Kid Hungry estimates that one in five sites that served meals in summer of 2021 will be ineligible to do so this year, and that nearly 7 million children could lose access to meals this summer.

The cuts to summer meals come as families are facing high fuel and food prices and a gradual rollback of many pandemic-era programs aimed at reducing poverty and hunger. “Families are continuing to struggle to put food on the table, and this is just another strategy to try to address food insecurity and to help families put a few more dollars in their pocket so that they can cover other basic needs,” Gonzales said.

The news that summer meals will end has been “devastating” to families in East Hampton, Connecticut, said Jennifer Bove, the school district’s director of food and nutrition services. Because only 18% of the district’s students qualified for free or reduced lunch, its schools weren’t able to offer summer meals before the pandemic. When the eligibility rules were waived in 2020, the district began serving summer meals and setting up farmers market-style stands where families could pick up fresh produce in addition to several days’ worth of breakfasts and lunches. The demand during the last two summers has been “shocking,” Bove said.

“Even though this is a relatively affluent community, many families are struggling or just scraping by,” she said, noting that many families lost jobs or haven’t fully recovered from the pandemic’s effects.

“It’s been really devastating, and not just to the people that you would normally count as low income. There are so many people struggling that you wouldn’t think would be,” Bove said.

Jessica Gould, the director of nutrition services for Littleton Public Schools in Colorado, said her district went from operating summer meals programs at two sites pre-pandemic to 25 sites last year. The district prepared meals at a central kitchen then took them to locations throughout the district where families could pick them up. This summer, they’ll be serving 77% fewer meals.

Gould said operating fewer sites will obviously make meals less accessible. But she also said that even in the two neighborhoods where free meals are still being served, the fact that children have to come into the school for breakfast and lunch will undercut participation. Many kids are cared for by older siblings while their parents work, and they aren’t allowed to leave the house or they lack transportation. “We’ve struggled a lot over the last few years to get those students food,” she said. “Having the ability for a parent to pick up meals — and multiple meals at one time — is huge.”

The end of summer meals programs is just the beginning of a series of contractions that school nutrition programs will face if the waivers expire. The waivers have also allowed schools to offer free meals to all students, regardless of income, and temporarily boosted reimbursement rates for schools, which has helped mitigate the effect of high food prices and supply chain disruptions, and has also allowed some schools to serve higher-quality food.

As Congress tries to work out a deal to extend the waivers for the coming year, a handful of states are aiming at a more permanent fix: make school meals universally free. Vermont’s governor recently signed a law making school meals free to all students, becoming the third state to do so, after Maine and California. Colorado voters will decide in November whether to make school meals free for all. Universal free meals legislation has also been introduced in several other states, including Minnesota, Massachusetts, New York, Wisconsin, and Maryland.

Connecticut has allocated $30 million to fund free meals for part of next year. The money will be an important bridge for families, buying schools time to help people sign up for free and reduced-price lunch, Bove said. But it’s still far short of the $70 million advocates said they would need to provide meals for the entire year.

Bove says that once school meals were made free for all kids, she really didn’t expect to go backward. “We pay for buses for kids to go to sports. How is that more important than feeding kids?” she said. “It just doesn’t make any sense at all.”

Pointing out that more than half of the children in the U.S. qualify for free or reduced-price meals already, Kevin Harris, the director of food services for the McHenry School District 15 in northeastern Illinois, said the logical next step is to make school meals free to all children.

“It’s in the best interests of our society to make sure that these kids are getting the nutrition they need to become healthy individuals and better citizens overall,” he said. “I think it’s the right thing to do. I think it’s the right time to do it.”

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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