Thirty million – that’s the number of children who have been receiving free meals as part of a federal plan to ensure universal school lunches for every kid in America’s public school system. But with virtually no congressional plan to extend the policy into next year, 30 million are now at risk of losing a guaranteed meal for five days a week/
This stunning development – which has sparked the ire of parents, administrators, and teachers alike – spans back to April 2020, when thousands of public schools issued sweeping closures over COVID-19 concerns. In response, then-president Donald Trump allowed the Department of Agriculture (USDA) to waive a slew of restrictions on free and reduced-price meals for school kids.
At the time, it was a vital executive action that granted students reliable access to food through school programs like grab-and-go meals and classroom lunches. Last year President Joe Biden extended the USDA’s waivers through the Spring of 2022 as part of a federal plan to buoy the nation’s public school system against the lingering effects of the pandemic.
But now, Republicans are angling to nix the waivers from Biden’s federal budget for 2023, flouting the guidance of child nutrition advocates who argue that schools arent ready for the waivers to be lifted, largely because they remain steeped in a global pandemic that’s seen an unprecedented surge in food prices.
“This has not been the recovery year that we thought it would be. School nutrition programs are still struggling families, and kids are still struggling. We’re still transitioning back,” Krystal FitzSimons, Director of School and Out-of-School Time Programs at the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), told Salon in an interview. “Providing another year of these waivers will be critical to support kids and families, to support education, and to support the school nutrition operations.”
Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, FitzSimons said, the National School Lunch Program was often a dizzying mess of bureaucracy. Parents were expected to fill out forms used to determine whether their children qualified for free or reduced-price meals. Lunch staff had to account for every student’s daily payments, logging their meal debt, which has been known to eat into school budgets. Not to mention, kids often forgot their lunch money, sometimes forcing them to go hungry or borrow from friends.
And yet, all of these problems completely vanished after the USDA announced the rollout of free meals, said Yooli O’Brien, a mother of two boys attending the Grand Rapids Christian Schools system in Grand Rapid, Michigan. Even though O’Brien was able to pay for both her boys’ lunches before the COVID crisis, the program, she said, took a massive logistical weight off of her shoulders.
“All of these problems completely vanished after the USDA announced the rollout of free meals”
“Universal school lunch is still fantastic because there’s nothing I need to do. I don’t have to sit there and figure out if I’ve remembered to load in enough money on my kids’ lunch accounts,” O’Brien told Salon in an interview. “And the schools are the same way, where administratively there’s so much less burden. They don’t have to walk parents through how to fill out the forms. They don’t have to feel like a gatekeeper.”
O’Brien noted that many parents share her concerns: “I just feel like parents are just stretched so thin right now that, even if you don’t need [universal school lunches] from a financial standpoint, the fact that [they’re] there is just so easy.”
Unsurprisingly, that sentiment is hardly anecdotal. According to a Data for Progress poll from last year, roughly three-quarters of all voters support or somewhat support making school lunch and breakfast free for every kid in America. Even the vast majority of Republicans backed free meals, with just 30% opposed.
But for reasons that remain hazy, public opinion on free lunches is now being flatly ignored by a broad swath of federal lawmakers, even though the program has passed with flying colors over the last two years.
According to the Post, the Biden administration repeatedly advocated for extending free meals into next year. But his efforts were reportedly thwarted as result of fierce pushback from Senate Republicans arguing that universal lunch was always meant to be a temporary measure whose extension might add billions of dollars to the nation’s rising deficit.
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Chief among this Republican cohort, the Post reported, is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., a notorious deficit hawk who last year also adamantly opposed Biden’s plan to expand the child tax credit.
As of this writing, McConnell has not publicly come out against extending universal lunches, so Salon asked the senator’s office to elucidate his position. McConnell’s press secretary, Doug Andres, suggested that the White House was to blame for the program’s impending cancellation.
“You may want to check in with the White House since they never requested an extension of this program in their supplemental request – or even in their most recent budget,” Andres told Salon over email.
“GOP leadership would “prefer to let our kids go hungry.'”
But according to the Post, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack aggressively pushed for the program’s re-extension during the drawing up of Biden’s budget, saying that he “made a request to speak to Leader McConnell and Leader McCarthy. Senate Agriculture Chair Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., has likewise blamed Republicans for the program’s disintegration, claiming that the GOP leadership would “prefer to let our kids go hungry.”
According to POLITICO, which spoke to half a dozen aides on both sides of the aisle, there are still “intense disagreements” around how and why the pandemic-era universal lunch program will not be renewed. But in the meantime, there doesn’t appear to be anything that the USDA can do to avert the expiration of the waivers.
“The long story short is [Vilsack] does not have the power to renew waivers that are currently in place,” Kate Waters, Press Secretary for the USDA, explained to Salon. “That power rests solely with the Congress.”
Needless to say, the exact scope of the crisis is hard to assess for certain, but there’s little doubt among experts that it will prove to be devastating.
Right now, USDA’s waivers grant free lunch meals to 30 million kids, up 10 million from prior to the pandemic. For schools, these meals have been fully reimbursed by the SNA. But once the waivers are lifted, experts expect those reimbursements to cover just 40% of each lunch. And in a nation where roughly 1 and 7 children are considered food insecure, the impact will be especially acute on families who are already struggling to put food on the table.
In Burke County, Georgia, for instance, where roughly 20% residents live in poverty, two-thirds of the district’s 4,100 students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (i.e., their families’ incomes fall below 185% of the federal poverty line), according to The Washington Monthly. Donna Martin, the county’s nutrition director, told the outlet that she worries about half of her students will not be able to eat this summer if waivers are lifted. “If we don’t get these waivers,” she said, “it is just going to be a catastrophe.”
Dr. Marlene Schwartz, Director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, affirmed Martin’s concerns in an interview with Salon, saying that the discontinuation of universal lunches is going to “make the job of the food service director much, much harder.”
“They’re dealing with supply chain issues. They’re dealing with labor shortages,” Schwartz explained. “Food service directors are exhausted. It’s been an incredibly arduous year for them. So I think [no waivers would be] adding a huge amount of stress to their jobs.”
In addition, Schwartz said, lifting the waivers will have an especially negative impact on families who are just on the cusp of qualifying for reduced meals. “I think that the families that were right on the edge, are the ones that are going to suffer the most, because now they are going to have to go back to paying for the meals,” she added.
On June 30, universal lunches are set to officially expire. But in the meantime, the impending deadline hasn’t stopped some states from bracing for the impact.
“A lot of times, if you think back to getting vending machines out of schools, getting soda out of schools, and getting snacks and other junk out of schools, it happens at the state level first, and then eventually, the federal government catches up,” Schwartz said. “This may work out that as states start to do it, it’ll provide more pressure for the federal government to reinstate the waivers but not as a waiver but to actually change the policy.”