What are waivers and what did they mean for school and communities during the pandemic?
Child nutrition programs (school breakfast, school lunch, after school meals, and summer meals) fall under the purview of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) which sets the rules for how these programs operate. At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, in March 2020, Congress gave the USDA authority to issue waivers that allowed for flexibility in how child nutrition programs were implemented in the midst of an unprecedented public health crisis. These waivers respond to three key areas of concern:
- Unique challenges of feeding kids during remote learning and continuing to feed kids in ways that follow social distancing protocols. The waivers allowed for:
- Distribution of bulk food products in addition to and/or instead of composed meals
- Grab and go/meal pick up
- Home delivery
- Economic impact of the pandemic on families. The waivers made meals free to all kids regardless of their financial circumstances.
- Supply chain disruptions and increased food costs. The waivers increased federal meal reimbursement rates.
How did these waivers help Maine kids and families over the past two summers?
These waivers allowed schools and communities across the state to serve more meals to more kids. From 2019 to 2020, when these waivers were issued, there was a 107% increase in the number of summer meals served in Maine. In July of 2020, there were over 1 million meals served!
Not only did these waivers increase reimbursement rates that allowed new summer meal sites to open, but the flexibility they provided was crucial in meeting the unique needs of Maine communities. Meal sites in rural areas, where transportation can be a huge barrier, were able to offer services such as home delivery and/or bulk food distribution, removing the need for families to travel long distances multiple times a week.
What’s happening to these waivers?
In March of 2022, Congress failed to give the USDA the authority to extend pandemic waivers past the 2021-22 school year. All waivers are set to expire on June 30, 2022, just as summer meal programs are set to begin. The consequences for Maine’s child nutrition programs and the children they serve will be dire this summer.
How will the end of these waivers affect Maine kids this summer?
Maine kids could miss out on as many as 400,000 meals this summer.
Waivers allowed all communities to operate summer meal programs, and the expiration of waivers will leave many sites unable to operate. Without the waivers, only communities that meet the area eligibility criteria (where at least 50% of children are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals) can run summer meal programs.
Additionally, the decrease in reimbursement rates and the loss of pandemic-era flexibility will have drastic effects on meal sites. Many sites will lose significant funding and will not be able to operate for financial reasons. For sites that are able to remain open, they will have less money to source and serve meals, which will affect both the quantity and the quality of what is served. Additionally, many sites that had been doing meal delivery and/or bulk food distribution will need to pivot their operations. Rather than bringing food to where kids live and play, summer meal sites will only be allowed to serve meals to kids who are able to travel to and eat at designated meal sites.
Due to these restrictions, many Maine kids are at risk of not having access to free meals at all this summer. Meals will be in short supply and less accessible to those who need them most.
In addition to reverting to pre-pandemic meal service, what challenges are schools, communities, and families facing in feeding children?
The reinstatement of pre-pandemic rules comes at a time when the need remains at pandemic-level highs, and child nutrition programs are facing the very real challenges of:
- Increasing and volatile cost of goods
- Supply chain disruptions
- Increased labor costs and shortages
All while Mainers are struggling to feed their families for some of the very same reasons. Rapid inflation continues to stretch family budgets far too thin, making it harder than ever to feed a family.
I thought Maine passed School Meals for All. Doesn’t this mean that all communities feed all kids for free?
The landmark School Meals for All legislation proposed and championed by Full Plates, and passed and signed into law in Maine in 2021, while a nation-leading step toward ensuring that no Maine child grows up hungry, applies primarily to the School Breakfast and School Lunch programs during the academic year. However, School Meals for All does make it possible for accredited summer school programs to offer free summer meals to enrolled students through the National School Lunch Program. But unfortunately this applies to a very limited number of summer sponsors in Maine and so the vast majority of summer meal programs operate under the rules and funding available through the USDA with no state subsidy.
What is Full Plates doing to help fill the gap?
Full Plates is hard at work collaborating with our child nutrition partners to make a plan to save summer for children across the state. We’re assessing the severity of the need and will be expanding our Summer Meals Grant accordingly to help bridge the devastating gap in funding.
How can I help?
Donate. Your support is crucial to ensure that we can connect Maine kids to meals this summer.
Spread the word! Talk to those in your personal and professional network, share by email, and share on your social media.
Want to dig a little deeper? Here’s what we’re reading (and listening to):
The Fight Over Free Lunch What Next Podcast
Southern Maine food pantries see growing need with rising food, energy and gas prices Portland Press Herald