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School and summer meal flexibilities extended by Congress

A red tray holds a white plate and cutlery.
Photo Illustration by Ruby Wallau/NPR
Congressional waivers to the USDA are meant to address the pandemic's disruption of school meals delivery.

Last week Congress passed a bill continuing the ability for schools to more flexibility serve meals to school children, extending powers it gave to the US Department of Agriculture during the pandemic.

The extension will affect Virginia school divisions' ability to feed children and retain school nutrition staff, say advocates and school officials.

Summer vacation doesn’t necessarily mean the end of school meals - schools, food banks, and others provide these meals in the summer. But normally there are restrictions on how they can give out those meals.

“To receive a meal in the summer,a child has to sit on site and consume that meal - just one meal at a time. And the parent or guardian would have to bring the child back each day for their next meal,” said Sarah Steely, the director of No Kid Hungry Virginia, of typical regulations around school meals.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, roughly March 2020, the USDA put in place, with congressional authority, several flexibilities that made it easier for community operators like school nutrition departments, food banks, Boys and Girls Clubs, etc, to operate the USDA meal programs in a way that worked best for their community,” she said.

These flexibilities are known as waivers because they waived restrictions on how to feed children. Last week Congress voted to extend the waivers, just before they were about to expire on June 30th.

Before the pandemic, not every school district even could have a summer meal program, but these waivers allow any of them to run one. Another important waiver allows families to pick up several meals and take them home.

Steely said that in rural Virginia, summer meal sites can be as far as 45 minutes or one hour away from those utilizing them.

While high gas prices make this even more valuable of a policy, especially for those spread out across the countryside, the waivers mean a lot to urban school districts too.

A high enough share of Richmond Public School students qualify for free or reduced lunch, so the school division is able to provide all students free or reduced lunch under a provision known as community eligibility. The legislation also helps with getting them fed with higher funding.

“The big thing that school nutrition staff recognize going into this summer holiday, in our first ‘normal’ summer holiday in the past three years, is that whether the waivers exist or not, the need is there,” said Sarah Abubaker, a spokesperson for Richmond Public Schools.

She said if the waivers weren’t renewed Richmond schools would’ve had to look for outside funding to keep the programs running. These waivers provide funds for these meal programs.

Crystal FitzSimons from the Food Research & Action Center said the funding this is important given the current economic conditions.

“School nutrition programs have been struggling with supply chain issues, and they've also been struggling with increased staffing costs. So the increased reimbursement will be a really important piece of making sure that school nutrition programs are able to operate and provide meals to kids.”

One significant difference between the original waivers and the ones congress just authorized is the restoration of reduced price and paid categories. Before, all meals could be free because of the waivers. So the families of children on reduced price meals will or could be charged for the meals, FitzSimons said.

FitzSimons said advocates are calling on congress to restore the universal waivers instead of having different categories.

“Being able to focus their energy on providing nutritious and healthy meals to kids, as opposed to processing school meal applications, will be really important.”

Almost all of Virginia’s federal legislators voted for the bill. Republicans Bob Good and Ben Cline voted against, and Rob Wittman did not vote.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Jahd Khalil is a reporter and producer in Richmond.
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