School meal programs have prevented children from hunger and malnutrition for decades. Available in almost every public and private school in the country, school meals operate under federal nutrition guidelines and a federal per meal reimbursement rate based on family income. They are so common across the United States that when the pandemic hit, the first place community members looked for help was their local school cafeteria. At first, it was total chaos. Nothing like this had ever happened before and no one knew how quickly families would experience food insecurity and seek assistance through the school nutrition programs.
Schools across the country responded and cobbled together delivery service models practically overnight so families could pick up food curbside. Supply chain and staffing challenges only made the situation more difficult. If a food and supply truck came to the school district, there was no guarantee of what was on that truck or if schools had the staff to store it properly, prepare it, and load it into family vehicles.
For the safety of children and the school staff, children could not come to serving sites daily, so a week’s worth of food was packed with preparation and serving instructions.
Even with all these challenges staring the school nutrition team in the face, they used their expertise and ingenuity to come up with a way to meet most nutritional requirements, pack correct portion sizes, and provide instructions for preparation. They were (and still are) heroes in every sense of the word. They selflessly exposed themselves to COVID because they knew the children in their care needed to eat.
With the help of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) along with advocacy groups across this country, Congress gave the authority to the Secretary of Agriculture to grant a variety of waivers to make sure schools could send food home for students, use flexibilities in the meal pattern due to supply chain shortages, and allow parents to pick up meals rather than require students themselves to come to get the food. They were able to do all of this while still receiving the essential federal reimbursement for those meals – including a higher reimbursement rate to cover some of the increasing costs in providing this service.
This continues to be a critical service that feeds our children and keeps them from negative health outcomes and hunger. It’s a break that allows schools to serve their communities during the pandemic crisis that continues to this day.
Exhaustion over the last two years has taken its toll and now everyone wants things to get back to “normal.” I ask: What is normal? We continue to see hybrid school schedules, regular supply chain challenges, and an increased cost for food and supplies across the country. All the while there are zero responses from vendors to deliver food and supplies for the coming school year, and many vendors are canceling contracts with short notice. At the same time, more families are qualifying for meal assistance that have never filled meal assistance in the past, and at least 30% of school food service staff positions remain vacant.
There is nothing “normal” about our situation today. Districts are dealing with all of these challenges on a daily basis. Instead of getting the time to reset the school nutrition program, we are facing a crisis cliff that we have never seen before.
So why is this crisis looming? School meal programs have always seen bipartisan Congressional support, but to my complete dismay, some in Congress have refused the extension of these waivers for one more year. This means that families across America will be left out to make up for the loss of this critical service.
On June 30, 2022, the school food waiver program will expire, leaving thousands of children vulnerable to hunger insecurity. Families will be confused as to why food is no longer available to their children, and schools will feel the brunt of the fallout. Without waivers, these children and their families will begin to incur large school meal debt.
How can tell a child to come to school without ensuring them a nutritious meal to get them through the day? This is nothing more than a political move – a huge wave created by a few lawmakers that want to place blame on our educators. We have fought this issue for decades, but the pandemic has exposed a broken system that allows our children to be a political football.
Congress needs to dive in and throw children a life jacket. They must help families across this country by extending child nutrition waivers through June 2023.
Dr. Katie Wilson
Dr. Wilson has dedicated her career to improving access to healthy school meals for all children, presently serving as Executive Director for the Urban School Food Alliance. She has spent 23 years as a school nutrition director in three Wisconsin public schools, five years as Executive Director for the Institute of Child Nutrition, two years as USDA Deputy Under Secretary of Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services, appointed by President Obama.