The child nutrition programs, including the summer feeding program, are facing a legislative deadline that could impact millions of children. Currently, the Secretary of Agriculture has the legal authority to "waive" many of the rules in the USDA child nutrition programs making it easier to feed children during COVID. The authority expires June 30 of this year and needs to be extended. It is an urgent matter for millions of students who rely on school nutrition programs
The Secretary has used his authority to issue 14 nationwide waivers that allowed schools to run more flexible meal programs and serve free meals to all students. USDA just announced increased funding to support school meals and to help continue serving healthy meals to kids for the balance of this school year.
With the Secretary's authority ending this June, it means that the summer feeding program currently has one set of rules for June and a different set of rules for July and August. In July and August, programs are required to have congregate meal sites. In June, that is not required. Many summer program sponsors are reluctant to even start a summer program without consistent rules.
A wind range of organizations and private sector companies, are raising the alarm in Congress, at USDA and the White House. They are urging the Congress to extend the Secretary’s waiver authority as part of the pending omnibus appropriations bill giving the Secretary the ability to resolve the concerns about summer food programs, as well as challenges for the next school year. The current Continuing Resolution funding the government expires on February 18th. It is expected that an omnibus appropriations bill will be enacted to fund the government from February 19 to the end of the fiscal year.
When the Congress set the waiver deadline of June 30, 2022, there was a widely held belief that the Covid pandemic would be behind us by the end of this school year. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Currently, schools are still struggling with Covid and literally thousands of schools are again closed. Mothers (mostly) are again being forced to leave their jobs to stay home and take of children not at school. And as much as we all would like to return to “normal,” it won’t happen by this fall. Supply chain issues and other matters mean that we need to extend the waivers so that we can have the time needed to transition back to “normal.”
Schools are beginning to plan their menus and order food for the new school year right now. But at this moment they do not know if they will be able to continue the higher reimbursement rates touted in the USDA announcement: “At the start of the 2021-2022 school year, the SFSP lunch reimbursement rate for participating schools was already 15% higher than the standard reimbursement for a free lunch. Now, because of higher food costs and other circumstances, schools will receive an additional 25 cents per lunch. Taken together, schools are receiving 22% more for school lunches than they would under normal conditions.” School meal costs are not likely to go down, but unless the waivers are extended the reimbursements will decrease. How do they make up the difference? Supply chain issues continue to impact school food authorities. Unless they have waivers continuing flexibility in meal patterns, how can schools meet the standards if sufficient supplies at affordable prices are not available?
This legislative barrier stands to impact 30 million children in the lunch program this fall and as many as ten million children this summer. There are 15 million in the school breakfast program. While it would be nice to address this problem as part of a comprehensive Child Nutrition authorization, that is not realistic. Extending the Secretary’s waiver authority must be provided as soon as possible, and that means as part of the Omnibus.
The organizations that are engaged in this effort include the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), Feeding America, Bread for the World, the American Commodity Distribution Association, the National Education Association, the National PTA, the School Nutrition Association, and the Urban School Food Alliance. It also includes other groups that you may not recognize as operators of these programs, especially the summer program, such as the After School Alliance, the National Parks and Recreation Association, Share our Strength, and the YMCA. The American Heart Association, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Children’s Defense Fund, Moms Rising, and National Farm to School are also active proponents of these efforts.
They have been joined by private sector companies who continue to provide quality foods served to the nation’s children. The private sector includes both agriculture organizations and food processors who sell to the child nutrition programs.
Secretary Vilsack and the Biden Administration have placed a high priority on feeding children, but they can’t move unless Congress extends their waiver authority. As the Secretary recently noted, "USDA understands that balancing the pressures of the pandemic with the need to feed children healthy and nutritious meals continue to be a priority for schools across the country.” Extending the waivers would grant the Secretary the additional authority he needs to respond the needs of children.
Marshall Matz and Roger Szemraj are partners at OFW Law in Washington, D.C.
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