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A proven blueprint for reducing child hunger is curtailed when it’s needed most

A proven blueprint for reducing child hunger is curtailed when it’s needed most

Picture of Elizabeth Chuck
(Image by Adobe Stock/Africa Studio)
(Image by Adobe Stock/Africa Studio)

With one out of every six kids in the United States living in a family that faces food insecurity, addressing childhood hunger should be an urgent national priority. And for the past two years, it was. 

In March 2020, shortly after the coronavirus was declared a pandemic, Congress gave the U.S. Department of Agriculture the authority to issue a series of child nutrition waivers with the express purpose of eliminating any red tape that might prevent a hungry child from accessing free meals. 

The waivers were lifelines. Among the benefits they provided were free school breakfasts and lunches for all students, regardless of their family’s income level. They also dramatically expanded summer meal service programs and the way that summer meals could be served to children.

The result of the waivers was astonishing. Accessing food became significantly less complicated and less time-consuming. Before the pandemic, some students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, but cumbersome paperwork that required parents to share private information sometimes prevented them from applying. During the pandemic, free meals were provided to all without any applications needed. When the school year ended, parents had the ability to grab multiple meals for the week as opposed to having to drive their child back and forth to a summer meal site each time they wanted a meal. 

Now, with the U.S. entrenched in another crisis — high inflation that is showing up in soaring prices at supermarkets, gas stations and elsewhere — advocates say the COVID-19 waivers provided a proven blueprint for how to address child hunger and should have been extended past their June 30, 2022 expiration dates. 

Congress had not included the extensions in its spending bill as expected earlier in the year, setting up what experts said was a perfect storm: more families struggling to pay for food, less access to nutritious meals for their children and supply chain interruptions on top of it.

“Waivers made things much easier for families and school administrators during the school year, reducing stigma around meals, alleviating stress due to labor and supply shortages, and easing schools’ administrative burdens,” Luis Guardia, president of Food Research & Action Center, said in a statement in May. 

Last month, only a week before the waivers expired, President Biden signed the Keep Kids Fed Act, an eleventh-hour bipartisan deal that extended some of the child nutrition waivers, including flexibility for summer meal sites and not penalizing school cafeterias if they encounter supply shortages.

However, the most groundbreaking waiver instituted during the pandemic — the one that made universal school meals free to all students — was not among those extended. 

And the problems surrounding food insecurity and children in the coming months will still be numerous. 

Some summer meal sites had already begun operating under the pre-pandemic rules, presuming no deal would be struck, and not all will be able to pivot how they are running their programs. In the upcoming school year, many families will have no idea they now have to fill out an application in order for their child to receive a free or reduced-price meals, potentially excluding students from accessing such meals if their school does not properly convey that information. 

Meanwhile, school nutrition service employees are being squeezed by staffing shortages and having unprecedented troubles finding the most basic menu items, with many of the School Nutrition Association’s more than 50,000 members reporting that they cannot count on staples, such as cartons of milk, being delivered on a consistent basis anymore. 

My reporting for the 2022 National Fellowship will focus on families most affected by the loss of these pandemic-era waivers and the fight to extend the benefits that they brought. I plan to show how the U.S. compares to other developed nations, many of which have free meals as a built-in part of their education systems, when it comes to feeding children. 

I am also interested in examining who qualifies for free and reduced-price lunch and other food assistance measures when the waivers don’t exist. Child advocates have long argued that this income band is too narrow, leaving many families still struggling to pay the cost of school meals.

The goal of my reporting will be simple: to illustrate that it shouldn’t take one public health crisis to address another.

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