Inside the Fight to Extend the Free School Meal Program

Suzanne Morales, the director of nutrition services for the 30-plus schools in California’s Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District, usually has to abide by strict conditions when feeding her district’s 24,000 students. The schools she oversees must provide legumes, dark green and red vegetables as well as orange or orange vegetables on a rotation basis. The meals must not contain trans fat and less than 10% can come from saturated oil. Each school lunch must include one cup fat-free milk or 1% milk.

Failure to meet these—or any other myriad National School Lunch Program (NSLP) stipulations—typically means that a district does not receive federal reimbursement for the meals they’ve provided. Two years ago, the system was changed. In March 2020, when COVID-19 began spreading in the U.S., plunging tens of million families into economic uncertainty, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with the help of additional Congressional funding, began issuing a handful of waivers that temporarily provided schools a workaround to some of the NSLP’s strict criteria, increased reimbursement rates, and allowed all children, regardless of their parents’ income levels, to access school meals.

These waivers proved to be a great success. They were supported by Republicans and Democrats, schools accepted the flexibility and millions of meals were distributed to hungry children. But, when the omnibus package that funds the government for Fiscal Year 2022 was introduced last month, an extension of the funding for school meal waivers wasn’t part of it. Schools faced an imminent deadline as the waivers were due to expire on June 30.

It is unfortunate timing. The immediate threat to public health from COVID-19 is over, but schools now face a 40-year-old inflationary high, unprecedented supply chain shortages of items such as milk, vegetables, and proteins that often hinder them from complying with the pre-pandemic NSLP stipulations. Morales and other school administrators are in panic mode. Child advocates warn that the children could go hungry. Capitol Hill lawmakers are also pointing fingers at each other. Democrats are blaming Republicans for failing to allow the waiver extension to be included in the omnibus legislation. Republicans are blaming the Biden Administration, who failed to include it in its $22 Billion COVID-19 supplement budget request.

Now, a handful of Senators have introduced a bipartisan bill to extend the waivers through the 2023 school year—but its future is uncertain. To pass the measure which will cost approximately $11 billion, supporters need 60 votes. Two Republicans are among the only ones who have signed on to this measure, and that includes Senator Kyrsten Silena, a centrist, and Joe Manchin, an independent senator.

These are important issues. If the bipartisan bill is not enacted, schools will have fewer funds to prepare meals under stricter nutritional guidelines and hundreds of thousands of school children in America won’t have access to the meals they’ve now relied on for years.

“All we want to do is feed kids,” Morales says.

The rising cost of labor and shortages in the workforce are causing schools to struggle.

Even with the waivers in place, school lunch program operators say it’s increasingly difficult to make ends meet. Morales’ cost of paper goods, like napkins, has surged upwards of 60% since 2019; while her food costs are up 40%. The increased federal reimbursement rate, while crucial, offered her no more than a 30% boost, “which doesn’t match the increases on your costs,” she says.

Teresa Brown, administrator of Ancillary Services for St. Charles Parish Public Schools Luling (La.), says it is a concern to retain employees in the face of a labor shortage. Her district, which is still reeling from both the pandemic and the category-four Hurricane Ida that destroyed homes and businesses in Fall 2021, can’t compete with rising wages, leaving her short on staff. That shortfall makes providing meals more costly, she says, since it forces schools to use prepackaged meals, which are more expensive, but less labor intensive “than an item that we may cook from scratch.” Brown estimates it costs her schools “well over” $4 to provide a meal now, compared to less than $3 before the pandemic.

Under the pandemic-era waivers, federal reimbursement rates for school lunches increased from roughly $0.30 to $3.48 per meal, depending on geography and student’s income level, to around $3.66 per lunch. That’s a “wonderful” increase, Brown says, but it’s not enough. The national non-profit School Nutrition Association conducted a survey and found that 48% expected a net loss in 2020-2021, while only 32% of those in that group had sufficient reserves.

Diane Pratt­Heavner (director of media relations at the School Nutrition Association) says that schools would be devastated if they allow waivers to run out completely. “Losing the waivers would be a double hit financially,” says Pratt-Heavner. “Not only would they lose that higher reimbursement rate, but they would see their meal participation decline, because the meals are no longer free for all students. And the fewer meals you serve, the higher per-meal costs.”

Schools are in the process to sign contracts for staple foods and set their meal prices for next year. Schools must increase prices to make up for lost waivers, record-breaking food cost and other factors unless they extend waivers soon. Students will be again responsible for paying school meals if the waivers are not extended. “We’re really getting to a crisis point,” says Pratt-Heavner. “Not only are you going to have families to suddenly have to pay for their meals, but they’re going to be paying more.”

Bipartisan efforts to feed kids

Senate Agriculture Chair Debbie Stabenow, and Senator Lisa Murkowski are now available. Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat and Murkowski, an Alaska Republican introduced a bill to increase the USDA school meals flexibilities to September 30th, 2023. It was presented by Debbie Stabenow and Lisa Murkowski. The bills were intended to assist schools in their transition to regular meal guidelines and the reimbursement rates for USDA school meals programs.

“Following the widespread disruptions caused by COVID, life is beginning to feel more ‘normal’ for some. However, many Alaskans are still working to overcome the economic fallout from the pandemic and many schools continue to struggle with supply shortages and higher prices,” Murkowski said in a statement at the time of the bill’s introduction. “That’s why I’m glad to join Senator Stabenow and my Senate colleagues in a push to allow USDA to extend vital support for school nutrition programs and preventing barriers that may prevent students from receiving a healthy meal.”

Stabenow and Murkowski need to amass 60 total Senate supporters to pass the Senate’s filibuster threshold. “We have 50 members that are supporting extending these critically important flexibilities to feed children both in the summer as well as the school year,” Stabenow tells TIME.

Only Sen. Susan Collins (a Maine Republican) has supported the GOP bill so far. “We need eight more Republicans to join us and we can get this done,” Stabenow adds.

Schools will have a hard time adhering to pre-pandemic guidelines if they don’t receive enough Republican support. Last summer, as Morales was serving 37,000 free meals—an 185% increase over summer 2019 levels—she couldn’t source a dark green vegetable to meet federal nutritional guidelines due to supply chain disruptions and inflation. The waivers allowed for substitutions of carrots. She still received federal reimbursement. It enabled her to maintain the meal program’s viability. When these waivers expire, that sort of substitution will no longer be an option, and she’ll have lower reimbursement rates to come up with a solution that meets the guidelines.

“Really this is a situation of kids versus red tape,” says Stabenow. “If we don’t get these flexibilities so children can have the healthy food that they need to be successful, we’re going to basically go back to a situation where we have a whole lot of red tape and a whole lot of hungry children.”

Here are more must-read stories from TIME

To Abby Vesoulis at


Related Articles

Back to top button