The Advocate April 2022: Child Nutrition Waivers

April 07, 2022

At the beginning of the pandemic, Congress granted the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) the authority to provide waivers for child nutrition programs to allow critical flexibilities for program operators to continue operations and feed children despite school closures and supply chain challenges.

Without Congressional action, these waivers are set to expire on June 30, 2022. Although schools remain open, districts continue to need these flexibilities to ensure students receive the healthy meals they need as programs face challenges caused by the pandemic.

Advocates were hopeful that Congress would include an extension of the USDA waiver authority in the FY22 omnibus bill but that did not come to fruition. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was the greatest opponent to the inclusion of the waivers, with the position that they were meant as pandemic relief and no longer necessary. Additionally, the Biden Administration was not adamant that having the waivers extended was a priority while Congressional Democrats were willing to sacrifice the waivers to get the omnibus passed.

However, standalone bills have been introduced in both the House and Senate that would extend the waivers through SY22-23 and we continue to urge Congress to do the right thing and take action on this important issue. In the House, the Keeping School Meals Flexible Act (H.R. 6613) was introduced by Reps. Spanberger (D-VA) and Fitzpatrick (R-PA). In the Senate, the Support Kids Not Red Tape Act (S.3979) was introduced by Sens. Stabenow (D-MI) and Murkowski (R-AK).

The expiration of the waivers on June 30, 2022, will be detrimental to school meal programs and their ability to serve students. Here’s what the end of waivers means:  

One of the most significant impacts for school meal programs will be financial. The current Summer Food Service Reimbursement Rates waiver allows schools to be reimbursed with the Summer Food Service Program rate which is higher than the normal rate. When this waiver expires on June 30, 2022, school meal programs will receive substantially less reimbursements while the cost of food, labor and supplies continues to increase. Returning to the normal reimbursement rate will increase meal program losses and cut into education budgets, impeding efforts to meet the needs of students.

Additionally, in recognition of the significant challenges that school meal programs were facing to get the necessary food to meet the meal pattern requirements of the NSLP and SBP, USDA provided flexibility around these requirements, including sodium, whole-grain, milk variety, vegetable subgroups and planned menus for specific age/grade groups. When these waivers end, schools must meet all of these requirements in order to receive reimbursement from the Federal government despite ongoing challenges of getting the foods necessary to be in compliance. Food companies and distributors have streamlined offerings and reduced the geographic areas they serve, leaving many meal programs without access to foods that meet highly specialized meal pattern requirements.

The waivers also provided flexibilities to the requirement that meals be served in a congregate setting and allowed parents and guardians to pick up meals. Districts were granted the ability to quickly pivot programs and ensure students were still receiving meals even when schools were closed, or students had to quarantine. Across the country we saw schools jump into action to ensure their students continued to be fed even when they couldn’t come to school. Districts delivered meals to families or provided to-go meals that could be picked up by guardians. When this waiver ends, schools will no longer be able to provide meals to students outside of school, even if schools close or a student must quarantine due to COVID-19. Meal programs will no longer have the regulatory flexibility they need to serve all their students safely and quickly adapt operations.

And finally, the Seamless Summer Option allowed schools to provide free meals to all students. Schools will now have to gather Free and Reduced Priced Lunch applications for the first time in two years. We have already heard from our members that they are experiencing difficulties in getting this paperwork, meaning students may lose access to meals unnecessarily.  

We urge Congress to extend the waiver authority through SY22-23 and provide schools and community-based organizations with the security necessary to plan for the summer and following school year. Without the extension, millions of children will lose access to the healthy meals they need to learn and grow. If you would like to take action on this and tell your Members of Congress to support the extension of waivers, draft language and contact information can be found on the AASA Advocacy App (see how here). While we remain hopeful that the waivers will be extended, districts should prepare for a SY22-23 without the flexibilities that were provided over the past two years.