The looming loss of universal free meals is “a worst-case scenario for schools and children nationwide,” says one anti-hunger organization.
To the dismay of many education organizations and advocates, funding for the child nutrition waivers that fed millions of children throughout the pandemic was omitted from the federal spending package now making its way through Congress. Unless some other action is taken, universal free meals will end on June 30.
Despite COVID’s steep decline, schools and community meal providers still face the “extreme challenges” of staff shortages, rapidly rising food costs and severe supply chain disruptions, said Lisa Davis, senior vice president of Share Our Strength, the nonprofit that operates “No Kid Hungry.”
Without the waivers, schools will face financial penalties if they don’t meet federal nutrition requirements at the same time they will have less money to pay rising prices for food and other goods. Many summer programs, which feed kids during “the hungriest time of year,” may not be able to open, Davis said in a statement.
“While we are all hoping for a return to ‘normal,’ there’s nothing normal about the environment schools are operating in right now,” Davis said in a statement. “Congress failed our kids by not clearing the path for USDA to extend critical child nutrition waivers.”
Others called the broader spending package a “mixed bag” for public schools. “We are deeply troubled by the lack of an extension for the school nutrition waivers, a seeming failure to acknowledge that student hunger needs will continue into the 2022-23 school year, and a willingness to undo all the good that has been done,” said Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of AASA, The School Superintendents Association.
“Complicating the meals piece even further—the end of these commonsense flexibilities comes at the exact time that schools are seeing increased prices and supply chain issues,” Domenech said.
He also criticized funding levels proposed for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which he said represents a cut compared to the American Rescue Plan. Despite some small increases, IDEA remains “severely underfunded,” and schools will be forced to use COVID relief funds for one-time expenditures instead of sustainable quality investments, Domenech said.
“While CEC is pleased to see small increases for some IDEA programs, a budget is about priorities. We are disappointed that supporting infants, toddlers, children, and youth with disabilities continues to fail to meet that threshold for Congress.”https://t.co/8EotpLb8ql
— Council for Exceptional Children (@CECMembership) March 10, 2022
“Today’s bill shows, once again, the disconnect between education funding proposals and education funding realities,” he said. “Our nation’s public school system leaders expected better, and our nation’s schools and students deserved more.”
Loss of the waivers will “devastate school meal programs,” said Beth Wallace, president of the School Nutrition Association.
Some 97% of school meal programs that responded to the Association’s November 2021 Supply Chain Survey reported that they were struggling with higher costs. Loss of the waivers will make it harder for meal programs to sustain staff salaries and buy fresh fruits and vegetables.
“Research shows school meals are the healthiest meals children eat; we should be encouraging more students to eat them, not making it more difficult for children to access meals,” Wallace said. “Congress’s failure to extend these waivers restricts access to nutritious meals and jeopardizes all the progress we’ve achieved in school meal programs.”
Supporting the most vulnerable students
Still, some K-12 organizations are touting the positives in the package, which would provide $76.4 billion in funding for the U.S. Department of Education, an increase of $2.9 billion over 2021.“The increases to the education budget show what school leaders can do if we collectively raise our voices in service of our students,” said Ronn Nozoe, CEO of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “School leaders have been advocating for resources to support our most vulnerable students and build a sustainable educator pipeline for over a year.”
Without mentioning the meal waivers, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten praised several funding increases for programs that support marginalized communities, including a $1 billion increase for Title I, a $406 million increase for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and a $45 million increase for community schools.
“These investments focus on helping the people who need it most,” Weingarten said. “They will significantly improve the ability of our public schools to meet the academic, social and emotional needs of students, particularly the most vulnerable.”