Schools are sounding the alarm about the loss of child nutrition waivers, which were not included in the omnibus spending bill.

School Nutrition Association leaders are calling on Capitol Hill to extend flexibilities initiated in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic that allow schools to offer free meals to all students, among other changes.

The expiration of the waivers on June 30 “will devastate school meal programs, impacting millions of students and working families who increasingly depend on our meals,” said SNA President Beth Wallace. SNA called on Congress to immediately extend the pandemic-driven waivers, which have “kept school meal programs financially afloat by reimbursing free meals at a higher rate,” SNA said.

“Without extensions, schools nationwide will be forced to cancel or scale back this summer’s meal services for local families,” SNA said. “At back-to-school time, short-staffed school nutrition teams, struggling just to get enough food in the kitchen and meals prepared, will scramble to manage meal applications. Meal programs will be forced to raise prices on families ineligible for free or reduced price meals.” 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., had objected to the extension, with an aide saying they would cost $11 billion and could have been included in last year’s $2 trillion American Rescue Plan. The aide also said the money was not in the administration’s $22.5 billion request for covid-related assistance in the omnibus.

Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack, however, “disputed this” in an interview with The Washington Post.

“This weekend, I’ve made a request to speak to Leader McConnell and Leader [Kevin] McCarthy,” Vilsack told the newspaper in a story published March 7. “Now, I realize that they’ve got a lot on their plate. But the failure of Republicans to respond to this means that kids are going to have less on their plates. And there’s no reason for this. There’s no reason for this.”

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“We all want to put the pandemic behind us, but what school meal programs face is nowhere close to normal,” Wallace said. “We desperately need these waivers to manage unyielding supply chain disruptions and labor shortages, cover rapidly escalating costs and remain viable to support our communities. Congress’ failure to act will undoubtedly cause students to go hungry and leave school meal programs in financial peril.”

The waivers have been a lifeline for meals programs during the pandemic as schools dealt with increasing costs for food, supply and labor. SNA said in its 2021 Supply Chain Survey that "97% of meal programs reported challenges with higher costs (nearly three quarters cited a ‘significant challenge’) and 95% reported staff shortages.”  

SNA said there is “broad, bipartisan support” for extending the waivers through the 2022-23 school year.

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