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Biden signs school nutrition extension, averting potential ‘summer hunger crisis’

Before leaving Washington for summit meetings in Europe, President Biden signed into law a $3-billion extension of school nutrition waivers. Proponents said the extension would prevent “a summer hunger crisis” and called for Congress to expand the school food program, rather than limit access.

The extension allows free meals to all students this summer, increases the federal reimbursement rate to schools for each meal served and gives schools leeway throughout the 2022 to 2023 school year in meeting nutritional standards for meals while they cope with supply shortages.

When classes meet in the fall, schools will return to the long-time system of serving meals for free to children from low-income households and charging the other students for the food. Meals have been free to all since the early days of the pandemic.

Senate Agriculture chairwoman Debbie Stabenow said she was disappointed by the removal, during Senate negotiations, of a provision that offered meals for free in the new school year for children who ordinarily would qualify for reduced-price meals. Revival of the reduced-price category allowed enactment of the extension before the current set of nutrition waivers expires on June 30.

“I look forward to revisiting this policy as we consider child nutrition reauthorization,” said Stabenow. In recent years, around 1.8 million children paid up to 40 cents apiece for reduced-price meals each school day. The last update of child nutrition programs was in 2010.

Republican lawmakers said it was time to return to standard procedures as the country recovered from the coronavirus. Arkansas Sen. John Boozman, the senior Republican on the Agriculture Committee, said the one-year extension “provides temporary, targeted relief.”

“Without access to free school meals, an alarming number of children will be at risk of hunger,” said the Food Research and Action Center. The anti-hunger group said the extension was “a critical first step to help avert a summer hunger crisis,” but that more was needed. “As we look ahead to the upcoming school year, we call on Congress to make additional investments in child nutrition programs through the upcoming budget reconciliation to prevent child hunger and support children’s access to free school meals.”

Elimination of the reduced-price category has been proposed periodically for years. About 6% of students fall into that category and pay up to 40 cents for lunch. Two-thirds of lunches are free to pupils from households with incomes below 130% of the federal poverty line. Children pay a reduced price for lunch if they are from households with incomes between 130% and 185% of the poverty line.

The School Nutrition Association, which endorsed a full-fledged one-year extension of the current waivers, said the slimmed-down version would help school food directors cope with supply chain disruptions and shortages of nutritious foods tailored for school cafeterias.

“Supply chain breakdowns, skyrocketing costs and severe labor shortages, expected to persist well into next school year, have prevented school meal programs from returning to normal operations,” said SNA president Beth Wallace.

Participation in the school lunch program nosedived to 6 million a day during the first month of the pandemic, from 32.6 million in the previous month of 2020.

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