Five days before COVID-19 nutrition waivers were set to expire, President Joe Biden signed the Keep Kids Fed Act into law. The bill, which Congress passed on June 24, would increase reimbursements to schools and child care centers and grant access to summer meals through Sept. 30.
Though some families will receive nutrition waivers through the upcoming school year, families that do not qualify for free lunch will be required to pay again in the fall. Congress passed the act after revising it to include pre-pandemic lunch pricing based on family income. In the 2022-2023 school year, a family of four will need to make $36,075 per year or less for their students to receive free lunch. Students who do not qualify will be expected to pay for meals again. The price of school lunch varies by school district, but is expected to increase in many districts across the country.
The bill to extend the nutrition waiver program through the summer comes at a crucial time for BIPOC and low-income families, who are more likely to rely on free or reduced-price school lunches. Food insecurity among Black families has increased by 60% since the start of the pandemic, and Black children are now three times more likely to experience food insecurity than their white peers.
“[Families] incurred such a significant hardship during the pandemic,” said Monica Gonzales, the director of federal government relations for Share Our Strength, an organization that aims to eliminate childhood hunger and poverty in the United States. “We know that one in five Latino families with children experienced hunger at a much higher rate than their white counterparts. The same thing for Black households: One in four Black households with children were food insecure.”
In March 2020, President Trump signed waivers to allow for more flexibility in how children received food. Before the pandemic, students’ eligibility for reduced-price or free lunches was based on their family’s income. In the 2019-2020 school year, a family of four qualified for free lunch if they made less than $25,750 per year. The COVID-19 nutrition waivers gave the USDA the authority to waive requirements and paperwork for schools, which allowed them to provide free meals to all students regardless of income. The USDA says the waivers have allowed for an additional 10 million children to receive free meals.
“When all students are eating free, there’s no stigma to that,” said Jeremy West, director of partnerships and member engagement at Urban School Food Alliance. “That just creates a more equitable experience. People are more willing to participate in the program.”
Prior to the pandemic, schools were only able to serve students food in “congregate” settings, but the waivers did away with this requirement as well. Parents and guardians were able to pick up multiple grab-and-go meals at either their child’s school or another program nearby, and schools also had the ability to deliver meals.
“[W]hen the pandemic hit, these waivers really allowed us to turn on a dime to make sure that we were being able to adapt the meal program so that they could reach kids where they are,” Gonzales said. “We just saw a huge increase in the participation rate and being able to reach more kids.”
Along with the nutrition waivers, school districts received additional meal reimbursement rates in order to navigate supply chain issues and labor shortages. Schools were able to feed kids healthier foods while managing rising operating expenses.
“We know and studies show that meals offered from schools are some of the healthiest that students have access to,” West said.
Cassie Williams, a mother of two and an advocate with ParentsTogether, underscored how universal free lunch provided much-needed relief to parents struggling to balance the demands of raising a child during a global pandemic.
“My husband and I both work full time and we work different schedules,” Williams said. “Knowing that my child was never gonna go hungry … was just a really big relief. I will say that I’m pleased to see this extension that goes through to the summer, but frankly, [universal free lunch] is something that should be made permanent in schools,” Williams said.
In addition to paying for school lunches, families of color and low-income families will be contending with the impact of rising gas and grocery prices this upcoming school year.
“The face of hunger has changed in America,” West said. “We don’t know what our neighbors are dealing with,” said West.
Both Gonzales and West urge parents to look at all available options to see if they qualify for food assistance programs. Gonzales encourages families to apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or other federal assistance programs, even if they don’t think they qualify.
“I think it’s important that they [work] with local community partners, food banks, and others to figure out, ‘Do I qualify for these programs? Am I eligible?’ because every little bit helps during this particular time,” Gonzales said.
“[Families] also need to pay attention to the free and reduced [school lunch] application because those will start to be available come July 1 for the coming school year,” West said. “Families need to be prepared to fill that out as soon as possible as soon as it’s available.”
Gonzales, West, and Williams agreed that Congress should do more to ensure that every child continues to receive quality meals at school regardless of income.
“[W]e need to really take advantage of the programs and strategies that were road-tested during the pandemic to make sure that we’re meeting the needs of kids,” Gonzales said.
Williams echoed that sentiment.
“If we want our kids to succeed in school, they should have full bellies and they should have access to nutritious meals in school every day for their entire school career. I think it’s a no-brainer.”