Many families and their children come to depend on the free meals as a means of daily sustenance. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis) Hunger In America School Lunches
Many families and their children come to depend on the free meals as a means of daily sustenance. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

The lack of free school meals could negatively impact millions of children across the country. 

During the pandemic, kids ate for free at school. Prior to the pandemic, more than 460,000 of Virginia’s 1.2 million students were eligible for free or reduced-price school meals prior to the pandemic.

Across the commonwealth, that meant families below 130% of the poverty level met the requirements for free meals and those between 130% and 185% of the poverty level were eligible for reduced-price meals at no more than 40 cents for lunch and 30 cents for breakfast. 

Thanks to quick action by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) when COVID-19 arose, students received universal free lunch regardless of their ability to pay. That move had a large impact on school meal participation numbers, with around 30 million students receiving free school meals, compared to 20 million pre-pandemic. 

Linda Blair, supervisor of school nutrition for Orange County Public Schools, joined a panel of child nutrition professionals, as well as US Congressional Rep. Abigail Spanberger, at a recent press conference where she spoke about the increase in school meal participation in her school district during the pandemic. 

There are 10 public schools in Orange County, representing just under 5,000 students. Out of those ten, six of the schools qualify for the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), a non-pricing meal service option for schools and school districts in low-income areas, while the other four potentially qualify. As a result of the current waivers, the district serves approximately 1,000 more meals a day, with the four non-qualifying schools demonstrating a significant uptick in meals served with a 16% increase in lunch and a 37% increase in breakfast.  

“These are in the four schools that will now be underserved after the expiration of the waivers,” Blair said.

For the schools that did qualify for CEP, there was an 18% increase in lunch participation and a 32% increase in breakfast. 

Now, Spanberger is trying to extend free school meals for children past the current June 30 waiver expiration date with the Keeping School Meals Flexible Act, which would give schools in Virginia and across the country increased flexibility to continue serving meals to students safely and efficiently. At the virtual press conference moderated by No Kid Hungry Virginia director Sarah Steely, Spanberger spoke with school nutrition and food bank leaders from Virginia’s 7th Congressional District.  

An Ongoing Project 

In March, Congress failed to extend the USDA’s authority to issue nationwide child nutrition waivers as part of the omnibus appropriations package. That means that unless additional action is taken soon, students across the country could lose access to free school meals—and as the numbers showed, that means 10 million American children could go without once again. Without action by Congress, the change would occur prior to the start of the fall semester. 

Lisa Landrum, director of food and nutrition services at Goochland County Public Schools, said that allowing the waivers to expire abruptly could have adverse effects on children who struggle with hunger. The action could also have “detrimental financial repercussions” to school meal programs, she warned.

The June 30 expiration date would also fall near the middle of many students’ summer break. Steely noted that the summer months are the “hungriest time of the year for kids who count on free and reduced meals.”

Steely said that the waivers made it easier for districts to serve meals in the summer months, particularly in rural areas, due to bulk pickup and delivery options. Without the waivers, not only would the flexibility of providing the meals diminish, but some sites would have to close altogether. 

Zach Nissen, director of programs at Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, estimated that up to four feeding sites in the rural Shenandoah Valley community of Elkton would no longer be eligible if the waivers ended, and that meant those sites would have to stop operations. 

“It’s not a community with a lot of wealth,” Nissen said. “We’re still facing a lot of holdovers from the pandemic, just compounding some of the issues that rural America still faces with the lack of access to transportation and centralized resources and things like that.”

Carey Sealy, director of programs at the Fredericksburg Regional Food Bank, also expressed concerns about summer meal programs for her community. She estimated that without the waivers, summer meal participation in the area would decrease by 42%.  

Extending the waivers through the 2022-2023 school year would help program operators handle the ongoing challenges, respond to emerging needs, and prepare for the transition. 

“Certainly the child nutrition waivers that have been in place have been vital to schools across Virginia’s 7th District and the country since the COVID-19 pandemic began,” Spanberger said.

Supply Chain Issues

The hardships on school meals didn’t end with the possibility of the expiring nutrition waivers. They continued with another issue — getting the food schools requested. 

The results of the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service-Administered School Food Authority Survey on Supply Chain Disruptions revealed that 92% of school districts nationwide cited trouble sourcing needed food due to ongoing supply chain disruptions. In Chesterfield County, that meant making changes, sometimes on a by-meal basis. 

In a recent food order for Chesterfield County Public Schools (CCPS), there were 38 substitutions and 14 missing items. When that happens, cafeteria staff have to make their own substitutions, sometimes serving one thing for the first lunch block, and something different for the last. 

“We ordered pears, canned pears. That’s a big one this year. We didn’t get the canned pears. We ordered muffins. We didn’t get our muffins,” said Casey Dickinson, associate director of food and nutrition services for CCPS.

Spanberger inquired about not meeting the federal standards due to the missing items, but Dickinson explained that while the school nutrition staff were staying on top of the issue and providing the necessary food groups on each child’s plate, some offerings changed from meal to meal due to not receiving the foods that they ordered. 

“Our staff is being creative, and they’re finding substitutions. Or, you know, they’re having to dig deep in the freezers and put out different items. So what the first shift of lunch is getting, the last shift might not be getting because that day we had to substitute with just what our stock was, what we had left over from a prior service that we didn’t utilize at that time,” Dickinson said. “So we’re being creative and we’re following the rules, but it certainly is creating this additional hardship that is mentally wearing on our staff.”

If Congress does not renew the school nutrition waivers, families with children in elementary through high school will once again face national average daily school meal prices of between $2.48 and $2.74 depending on the child’s grade — and that’s based off of pre-pandemic data.