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School meal programs in 'financial peril' after spending bill snub, advocates say

Temporary changes that allowed schools to keep feeding children during the pandemic are set to expire unless Congress acts.
Students eat lunch at Wyandotte County High School in Kansas City, Kan., on March 31, 2021.
Students eat lunch last year at Wyandotte County High School in Kansas City, Kan.Charlie Riedel / AP file

A sprawling $1.5 trillion spending bill that passed the House on Wednesday and would fund the federal government through September doesn't include special benefits put in place at the start of the pandemic for schools to ensure that every student is fed.

The exclusion means child nutrition waivers would expire on June 30, potentially cutting off access to breakfast and lunch for millions of schoolchildren at a time of rising food costs, school nutrition advocates warn.

The Senate could take up the spending bill before a Friday night deadline, but advocates aren't hopeful that the waivers — at a cost of $11 billion — will acquire the necessary support, particularly among Republican leadership.

"We all want to put the pandemic behind us, but what school meal programs face is nowhere close to normal," Beth Wallace, president of the School Nutrition Association, said in a statement Wednesday. "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," added Wallace, whose group represents over 55,000 school nutrition professionals.

Advocates say school meal programs became even more crucial after the U.S. Department of Agriculture said a year ago that it would extend universal free lunch through this school year to reach millions of children burdened by hunger and food insecurity.

While the funding of free and reduced-price lunch programs have been invaluable, the school nutrition waivers continue to be necessary, said Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association. Such waivers prevent schools from being penalized if they can't meet certain regulatory requirements amid supply chain shortages, such as serving specific types of food that follow nutritional guidelines.

Pratt-Heavner said she's had conversations with operators of school meal programs who've had trouble procuring even milk — not because it is in short supply, she said, but because the materials for the pint-sized cartons have become harder to source, forcing operators to substitute juice or water.

"There is bipartisan support for this," she said. "We have worked with Republicans on this issue and we are very surprised the waiver extension language was not included" in the spending package.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers have debated whether to keep funding programs in the bill that have benefited since the early months of the pandemic.

The office of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., did not immediately respond to reports that he is against funding and extending school nutrition waivers.

Kate Waters, a Department of Agriculture spokeswoman, said Wednesday that the agency is "disappointed" in the lack of action by Congress, but that it will "continue to do everything we can to support leaders running these programs during this difficult time."

Earlier this week, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told The Washington Post that "the failure of Republicans to respond to this means that kids are going to have less on their plates."

School meal programs have traditionally aided lower-income children. Pre-pandemic, nearly 100,000 schools served lunches to 29.6 million students daily, according to the USDA. That number plummeted considerably as schools closed during the pandemic, but the amount of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches has climbed to more than 98 percent of all participants, which was 8.4 million in 2021.

Advocates say several concerns still loom: Will families who've relied on free school meals during the pandemic and are not familiar with the application process get the guidance they need to ensure their children qualify? What happens if schools need to raise the price of their meals or face penalties for being unable to secure certain items? And will hungry children start falling through the cracks?

"Schools are under enough pressure," Lisa Davis, the senior vice president of Share Our Strength, an anti-hunger charity, said in a statement Wednesday. "Today, Congress made their jobs even harder."