Waivers that served free breakfast and lunch to all schoolchildren are about to expire. What’s next for school districts?

When schools turned to virtual learning at the start of the pandemic, the national school meals program was thrown into chaos. Millions of children depend on school meals to stave off hunger, so school nutrition directors have raced to adopt creative new ways to distribute food to families. Some of those changes were improvements over the status quo, they say.

And as part of pandemic relief legislation, the federal Food and Nutrition Services agency waived the requirement that schools serve group meals, increased reimbursement rates by school year to summer levels for school food programs and allowed more flexibility in how food is prepared. and packed.

Schools have started preparing lunch bags and other on-the-go options that parents can pick up at school and take home for their children. They even used buses to bring meals, sometimes for several days, to pick-up points in different neighborhoods.

But all of that — free lunches for kids regardless of family income, summer fare refunds and the flexibility some districts have been able to take advantage of — is set to end, officially, on June 30. This means that as costs rise, school districts will have to revert to lower reimbursement rates, and families who do not meet federal income requirements for free or reduced-price lunches will, once again, have to. pay for these meals.

Kevin Harris, president of the Illinois School Nutrition Association and director of food services for the McHenry School District, said “there is great concern about the decline” in financial support from others in his position.

“We’re here, mid-June, and we don’t know what our meal prices will be,” Harris said. “There are a number of (legislative) bills, but will any of them be supported, or are we just going to go back to how it was before?”

Harris said he remembered last year’s lunchtime waivers being extended in September, months after the district’s lunchtime operations were already underway after the July 1 fiscal year began.

“Last year they didn’t approve everything until two weeks into the school year,” he said. “They said, ‘Oh, by the way, we’re going to do this for you – go ahead and backdate it to early September. “So we had, in August, kids paying for their meals, and then they started doing it in September. It was just a big burden for the catering people to make sure we did what we had to. TO DO.

Earlier this month, Politico reported that Biden administration officials were trying to use about $1 billion from an agricultural fund to help school districts, but that effort has yet to be finalized.

“I’ve contacted members of our congress, called our senators, left messages, and sadly, many seem to be falling on deaf ears,” Harris said.

At a recent school board meeting in the McLean County Unit 5 School District, Chief Financial Officer Marty Hickman told board members that positives noted in some aspects of the school’s budget — including including federal reimbursements for school meals – will not be reflected in the next fiscal year.

“Increased revenue on the food service side through the federal reimbursement – ​​this free-for-all program hasn’t been expanded yet, to my knowledge, so we don’t expect that big increase next year,” did he declare.

Unit 5 Food and Nutrition Services Director Joanna Rewerts said the district is ready to return to pre-pandemic practices for billing meals and despite the availability of free breakfast and lunch , “our meal count was very similar to what it was in 2019, when we were on the national school lunch and breakfast program.”

Rewerts said the district “did not calculate whether or not there were more earning families taking advantage of the free meals.”

“Overall, the number of lunches and breakfasts we served was very similar to the pre-COVID era,” she said.

Outgoing District 87 Superintendent Barry Reilly said the Bloomington District is also ready to return to pre-pandemic practices, noting that parents who must fill out forms for free or reduced-price lunches will need to remember to do it after two classes. years without having to.

“I personally believe the time is right for the nation to transition to universal student feeding,” said ILSNA President Harris. “Right now, over 50% of the population of the United States receives free or reduced-price meals. Going forward, I don’t think it would be so successful to include all students in our meals. free at this point.”

NPR contributed to this report.

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