Authorized by the US Department of Agriculture, the waivers allow schools to distribute free meals to all students without verifying their families’ income. They give districts the flexibility to offer grab-and-go meals for kids who are quarantining or studying remotely or to serve meals in classrooms instead of the cafeteria. And they provide schools with a higher reimbursement rate and more leeway if they can’t meet nutritional guidelines because of supply chain or staffing issues.
Around 30 million students now receive free meals at school, according to the USDA, up from about 20 million children who qualified based on their household income prior to the pandemic.
Some of those students now eating free meals are in households that can afford to pay for the breakfast and lunch.
Others, however, are in families that are just above the income threshold but still struggle to put food on the table, said Crystal FitzSimons, director of school programs at the Food Research & Action Center, an anti-hunger group. Also, prior to the pandemic, some children who were eligible for free meals missed out because their parents may not have received, understood or filled out the required forms.
If the waivers are not extended, to qualify for free meals during the upcoming school year, a family of three must earn less than roughly $30,000.
Paying for school meals can be a burden for families. Three-quarters of school districts said that they had unpaid student meal debt, according to a 2019 report from the School Nutrition Association.
“One of the easiest things you can do to make sure that kids have what they need and that they’re going to be in class, able to focus and learn and concentrate, is making sure that they have access to a school breakfast and school lunch,” FitzSimons said.
Virginia Rep. Bobby Scott, who chairs the House Committee on Education and Labor, is pushing to extend the waivers for another year to give schools and students more time to transition back to pre-pandemic requirements.
“I would rather provide free school meals to students who might otherwise be able to afford it than deny hungry students a school meal just because they did not complete the necessary paperwork,” he said.
More kids receive summer meals
Without the waivers, only communities where at least 50% of children are eligible for free meals can offer food over the summer. The meals must be distributed at an approved location and eaten on site.
Last July, an average of nearly 7.6 million children received a meal each day through the summer program, compared with 3.7 million kids in July 2019, according to the USDA.
The waivers have also made it easier for child care and after-school programs to provide food to their charges, enabling them to distribute free meals to all kids. Also, parents can pick up food if their children can’t participate.
Some 35.4 million suppers were served after school to at-risk children last October, compared with 28.3 million in October 2019, according to the USDA.
Feeding kids when schools closed down
The spending package could allow the waivers to continue for the 2022-2023 school year. Federal government funding expires on Friday at midnight.
But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is blocking the extension of the waivers, according to a source familiar with the negotiations.
“Instead of continuing the bipartisan tools and flexibilities to help safely provide meals to students during school and over the summer, which could easily be done in the omnibus, Republican leadership has said no and decided that they prefer to let our kids go hungry,” said Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee. “This is a disgrace!”