Pandemic summer lunch waivers are ending – more children could go hungry

This summer, the Warwick School District’s Director of Food and Nutrition hopes to serve 600 meals a week. Breakfast and lunch will only be available at two schools in the spread area instead of nine, and only for four weeks instead of the entire summer. In addition, children will have to eat on site rather than bringing food home.

“It makes my heart break,” Rowe said. “We got help from a lot of families.”

A source close to the negotiations told CNN that the leaders of the House and Senate committees are working on an agreement to extend the waivers.

The curtailed summer meal programs come at a time when many parents are struggling to put food on the table as the cost of groceries, gas and other necessities is rising.

“Families are going to be in a lot of pain this summer,” said Jellene Meyer, director of partnerships and campaign strategy for Share Our Strength’s No Hungry Child campaign. “It’s tearing apart the security blanket these families depend on.”

More summer meals served during the pandemic

The exemptions have greatly expanded USDA summer meal programs, which have traditionally had poor participation rates due to all the restrictions. However, it is a vital source of nutrition for children whose parents cannot regularly purchase fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy items.

Good nutrition during the summer also reduces the learning loss that many children experience when class is outside of class.

Over the past two summers, schools and community groups can provide food in more locations, not just areas with high poverty rates. Parents and children can take meals to take home, instead of having the kids eat on site. They can have breakfast and lunch for several days.

As a result, the number of summer meals served nearly tripled to 263 million in July 2020, according to No Kid Hungry’s analysis of USDA data. Nearly 191 million meals were distributed last July.

The analysis found that this number could shrink by 95 million meals in July. Simply losing the exemption that allowed distribution to more sites could jeopardize nearly 7 million children’s access to food as about 20% of sites could be closed.

Families in rural areas could be particularly hit as many will now have to travel further distances to meal locations with gas prices skyrocketing. It might be cheaper for them to make a peanut butter sandwich and jam for their kids at home, Rowe said, although kids might then miss the fresh fruits and vegetables that school districts provide each day.

Cindy Long, director of the agency’s Food and Nutrition Service, said the USDA is using any space possible to help schools provide summer meals for children.

It also encourages states to apply for the summer Pandemic-EBT program, which is available while the national public health emergency is in effect. This measure provides families eligible for free, reduced-price meals approximately $400 per child to help them buy food while they are away from school.

Eleven countries have already been approved, Long said, and more are under review. However, it may take several weeks or months for the funds to reach the parents. Almost all countries participated in the program last summer.

Downsizing Programs

Getting kids into summer meal programs has always been a challenge—particularly the requirement for them to be eaten on site, said Susan Maffei, director of food and nutrition services at Meridian Public Schools in Connecticut, one that many working parents find difficult to arrange. More than three-quarters of students in the district are eligible for free or reduced-price meals during the school year.

In the summer of 2019, the district provided just 59,000 meals to about 700 children. But once the waivers started, the numbers jumped to nearly 400,000 meals served To about 2,000 children in 2020 and about 339,000 meals to 1,750 children last summer. And Meridian was able to provide enough food for seven days, not just five.

This summer, the district hopes to distribute 106,000 meals, although Maffe is not confident of reaching that number. Also, Meriden is operating at only six locations this year, two times less than in the past two summers.

Requiring kids to eat on site is a big deterrent, with many Meriden parents surveyed saying their work schedules don’t allow for it. Others said this summer’s locations are too far away and they don’t have transportation.

Last summer, Meriden Public Schools in Connecticut could provide meals for children to take home.

“More children will go hungry,” Maffei said, noting that it would hurt children’s chances of preparing for learning in the fall. “It’s another financial strain on families.”

To entice children to participate, the district has created a fridge magnet with a QR code that tells parents the locations of the meals. She plans to organize events where children can choose a prize from a treasure chest or a book after reading. Scavenger hunts and a backpacking fair will also be conducted with the local fire department.

The waivers also gave school districts more flexibility when they faced supply chain disruptions, eliminating fines for not meeting federal food requirements.

Jefferson County A public school district near Denver had problems getting whole-grain foods from a pizza seller and cookie maker this summer, for example. Beth Wallace, the district’s executive director of Food and Nutrition Services, is concerned that if problems persist, schools could be penalized in the fall.

“We have to choose and do our best, and always provide a nutritious meal. But that may not be in line with our guidelines because we can’t get the product,” said Wallace, also president of the School Nutrition Association. “I don’t know how much tolerance the USDA will have for not being able to meet the requirements of the legislative program.”

Although the agency is limited in what it can allow without waivers, it is still trying to be creative in helping schools facing supply chain issues, Long said.

“Our general philosophy is that any school district that works hard to put healthy meals on the table and encounters challenges beyond its control should not be deeply concerned by the USDA,” she said.

domestic finance

Over the past two summers, the Child Hunger Alliance has distributed hundreds of thousands of meals at more than 300 locations across Ohio. Realizing that she would have to cut the number of sites by more than half this year, Jodi Mobley, chief executive of the nonprofit, began looking for funding from the state and private donors.

The Child Hunger Alliance is turning to government and private funds to run more summer meal locations.

The coalition is using a $300,000 grant from Ohio Governor Mike DeWine as well as donations to restore some of the sites, which could operate without USDA rules. It also hopes to continue one of the eight commuter routes that have distributed breakfast and lunch in parks, libraries, apartment complexes, and other places where low-income children congregate during the summer.

However, Mobley is very concerned that the coalition and other meal providers won’t be able to reach all the children they’ve served over the past two summers thanks to the pandemic-related waivers, particularly the ability to provide takeaways. Last summer, a total of 5.9 million meals were distributed in Ohio, up from 1.9 million in 2019.

“We simply focused on how to feed children in need,” she said. “The waivers allowed us to do that.”

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