Some states want to lock in universal free school meals when federal waivers end

As schools prepare for the end of federal nutrition waivers that have made free school meals universal during the pandemic, lawmakers in some states are moving to lock their own programs into law.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s school nutrition waivers are due to expire on June 30. The waivers allowed all students, regardless of income, to eat free school meals for the first time in modern history. Before the pandemic, free meals were only offered to low-income students. In the 2019 federal fiscal year, 74.2% of meals were free or discounted, according to the USDA.

They also provided higher than normal reimbursement rates for meals, alleviating some of the cost of school nutrition programs. Ninety percent of school food authorities, including public and private school cafeterias, used the waivers, according toaccording to a USDA survey released March 4.

Congress did not include an extension of waivers in the $1.5 trillion spending bill that President Joe Biden signed into law on March 15.

When the waivers end, many school districts will face the challenge of returning to pre-pandemic rules, including mountains of paperwork, while still being impacted by pandemic-era circumstances like staffing shortages and the inflation. And some families will again have to worry about covering the cost of meals for their child.

This will not be the case in California and Maine, as both states have adopted their own universal free school lunch programs. Lawmakers in four other states – Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York and Vermont – have also proposed or passed universal free lunch bills, and Colorado will have a proposal on the ballot in November, signaling growing interest in the programs.

A growing trend

The states’ proposed laws come after the Universal School Meals Program Act, backed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., failed to pass the U.S. Senate last year.

But in Vermont, Doug Davis, director of food services for the Burlington School District, has worked for more than a decade to make the universal free lunch program a reality for Vermont schools. Now he is waiting for Gov. Phil Scott to sign the state’s Universal School Lunches Act, which was delivered to the Republican governor’s office on May 25.

If signed, the bill would give every student in Vermont free access to breakfast and lunch at school. The state education fund would cover additional meal costs not already covered by the federal Free and Reduced Price Meals and Community Eligibility Provision programs, both of which provide free meals to students at low income.

For the past two years, Davis has enjoyed the benefits of waivers. Four of the district’s nine schools were offering free lunch for the first time, which meant more of its students could access meals. The other five schools are part of the Community Eligibility Provision, which allows schools with low-income populations to provide meals for free, and all schools in Burlington provide free breakfast and lunch.

The district hasn’t seen a huge increase in participation in free lunch programs during the pandemic, Davis said. Instead, the number has remained stable with pre-pandemic levels, but the waivers have allowed the district to operate with more flexibility. Its employees did not have to know which students qualified for free and reduced-price meals and which did not. The stigma around paying for lunch was one less mental stressor in an already difficult time for student mental health.

Without the waivers, Davis believes the situation would have ended in a chaotic mess.

While the idea of ​​free school meals isn’t new, Davis thinks the pandemic has given lawmakers additional impetus to pursue state-funded programs.

“If there’s a COVID silver lining, it’s because our lawmakers and our schools and our leaders have been able to see what it looks like to make school lunches free for all kids,” Davis said.

In Colorado, the state legislature has approved a ballot question for the November election, asking voters to approve a cap on income tax deductions for people who earn more than $300,000 a year. . Revenue from this cap would pay for the additional costs of free meals for students who are not already eligible for free and discounted lunch, beginning in the 2023-24 school year.

A call for federal action

While state-level action is a sign of momentum, school nutrition advocates are focusing their attention on national efforts to make universal free school meals a reality.

Organizations like the School Nutrition Association and Hunger Free America have long advocated permanent free lunch programs. The end of federal waivers will be especially trying for families who fall just outside USDA income eligibility guidelines, said Hunger Free America CEO Joel Berg.

“I got a free bus ride to school. I had free access to textbooks. I had free access to lab equipment. … Why in the world are we giving this away for free and then nickel and dimming children during mealtimes is just amazingly counterproductive and absurd,” he said.

When the waivers end, school nutrition services will be even more stretched than they are now, said Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association, the national organization for nutrition workers. Without the waivers, school nutrition workers will have to do a lot of work to reach families who have not had to apply before.

“They have to work twice as hard to get food and supplies in for their kids, have to re-order items, even run to the grocery store. [stores] to get what was missed,” Pratt-Heavner said. “They just don’t have the current capacity to do anything more.”

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