At the end of June 2022, a suite of COVID-19 child nutrition waivers will expire absent congressional action. These waivers have provided universal meals to students, regardless of income eligibility, while also meeting social distancing standards. Their expiration would put millions of students, particularly those most vulnerable, at risk of hunger.
The federal government has a small but distinct window of opportunity to do the right thing and ensure that no child in America goes to bed hungry.
When a child experiences a period of hunger even once in their life, it can severely affect their long-term education and health outcomes, which perpetuates a cycle of systemic inequity that consistently contributes to negative lifetime achievement outcomes for historically marginalized families, including families of color.
To address this critical issue, Congress should take immediate action to extend the child nutrition waivers before the end of this month.
At the start of the pandemic, Congress gave the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) the ability to authorize pandemic school meal waivers through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act of 2020 (FFCRA), which was further extended through the 2021-22 school year by the Continuing Appropriations Act of 2021.
These waivers give schools the ability to:
- Adjust their service models to provide free meals without verifying eligibility.
- Mitigate increased financial costs through increased federal reimbursement.
- Adapt to the operational challenges of providing meals during hybrid or virtual schooling or while maintaining social distancing.
For example, the Seamless Summer Option (SSO) waiver allows students to receive meals throughout the school year and summertime without having to meet eligibility requirements via forms filled out by parents and verified by school staff. Furthermore, through the SSO waiver, schools receive an increased financial reimbursement at the Summer Food Service Program rate rather than the lower National School Lunch Program (NSLP) rate. A recent report on the effectiveness of summer meal distribution during COVID-19 claimed that several of the USDA waivers helped food service directors increase participation in their summer meal programs. Studies show that access to summer meals could increase the number of high school graduates by nearly 82,000 and reduce education costs by $50.6 billion annually.
Likewise, another waiver allows parents and guardians to go to school and pick up meals for their children and bring them home, which is particularly helpful when schools are shut down since young children may not understand how to properly social distance.
Child nutrition: By the numbers
Number of estimated additional high school graduates each year that would result from increased access to summer meals
Number of school meals lost from 2018-19 to 2020-21, according to CAP analysis
Share of children’s daily dietary intake that comes from meals received at school
In March 2022, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) introduced the Support Kids Not Red Tape Act to extend this suite of child nutrition waivers. However, despite bipartisan support, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) rejected the proposed waivers’ extension though the fiscal year 2022 spending bill. As a result, Congress passed this year’s $1.5 trillion spending bill without the measure, putting access to summer and school meals for low-income students and their families at risk.
The current state of school meal access
According to a recent report released by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), almost 20 million students received lunch through their school each day during the 2020-21 school year—and USDA waivers were a crucial factor in ensuring that children and their families had access to school meals even while schools were remote or hybrid. In spite of these efforts, there was a 32.4 percent decrease in school lunches served during the 2020-21 school year compared with the 2018-19 school year, mainly due to pandemic-related barriers. This decrease equates to a loss of approximately 1.43 billion meals for students.*
When a child experiences a period of hunger even once in their life, it can severely affect their long-term education and health outcomes, which perpetuates a cycle of systemic inequity.
Indeed, the pandemic has exacerbated existing barriers to summer and school meal access while also creating new ones. Such barriers include limited staffing capacity to administer the programs, supply chain disruptions, and inability to access transportation to pick up meals. As challenges persist, school meal waivers are necessary to maintain and improve the level of meal participation by students to date.
Why school meal access is a priority
The expiration of the summer and school meal waivers would put millions of students—particularly those from low-income families—at risk of losing access to school meals and summer meals, which help to reduce food insecurity and hunger in financially precarious households. In fact, according to the USDA, the meals children receive at school account for more than half of their daily dietary intake. Moreover, students who participate in the National School Lunch Program are more likely to consume foods high in nutrients—including whole grains, milk, fruits, and vegetables—which increases the likelihood that they will consume these foods throughout their lives, among other benefits.
Lack of access to these meals has negative health implications for food-insecure children, as experiencing hunger has been explicitly linked to students scoring lower on tests and engaging in behaviors that make it difficult to learn and succeed at school. Additionally, losing access to summer meals can increase learning loss during that period, commonly known as the “summer slide,” making it more difficult to reengage in school in the fall. Beyond that, childhood experiences of hunger are linked to negative long-term life outcomes, including poorer health, lower educational attainment, and lower lifetime earnings.
Notably, pandemic-related health and economic consequences have been felt most acutely by low-income families and their young children. The expiration of the child tax credit alone resulted in 3.7 million more children reportedly living below the poverty line in January 2022 than in December 2021. Additionally, the expiration of school meal waivers would disproportionately affect Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) households—particularly Black, Hispanic and Indigenous families, who experience food insecurity at more than double the rate of white households. Even before the pandemic, BIPOC families accessed free and reduced lunch at higher rates.
The expiration of the summer and school meal waivers would put millions of students—particularly those from low-income families—at risk of losing access to school meals and summer meals.
Millions of families are still struggling with financial precarity amid the ongoing pandemic—made worse by the increasing cost of food and other basic necessities due to supply chain problems, corporate profiteering, and increased transportation costs. For these families, there is a stark difference between having to provide only one or two meals a day and having to provide three nutritious meals a day, especially in households with multiple children. Indeed, some parents may even have to rely on external resources such as food banks, which have limited supply.
School meal waivers lessened some of that burden, enabling households to better manage access to food and nutrition for their children.
How Congress can take action
To promote equity and further alleviate barriers to student achievement, it is necessary that Congress pass the Support Kids Not Red Tape Act, which would extend USDA flexibilities authorized through the FFCRA for the two upcoming summers and the 2022-23 school year.
This bill, introduced by Sen. Stabenow (D-MI), would do the following:
- Allow the USDA to continue to authorize waivers to states: This would allow states to provide children with access to meals via the NSLP, Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT), or another nutrition program, with increased federal reimbursement and without requiring households to apply for assistance.
- Require participating states to submit a plan to the USDA for when schools would presumably return to normal operations in fall 2023: In doing so, the Support Kids Not Red Tape Act would allow the USDA to provide technical assistance to ensure a smooth transition.
In addition, the extension would remove administrative burdens on school officials to inform, distribute, and process forms to determine eligibility and the logistics of food access for students learning in a virtual or hybrid environment in the summer and fall of the 2022-23 school year. School administrators are already overworked, having dealt with the pandemic- and health-related challenges of the past two years. With 90 percent of schools still facing pandemic-related challenges, increased financial reimbursement would quicken financial recovery for educational institutions and ease the stress of financially precarious parents and guardians who worry about where their child’s next meal will come from.
Long-term policy solutions should include passage of the Universal School Meals Program Act, which would permanently make all breakfast and lunch programs universal. The bill, introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), has garnered a significant number of co-sponsors and advocate support, though it is not expected to pass before the end of the year.
States already taking action
Many states have benefited from the reduced administrative burden and increased universality of school meal access as a way to provide lunches for all of their students, regardless of income. The success of these school meal waivers shows that universal meal access should be a permanent solution to reduce child hunger.
Indeed, the universal lunch provision has the capacity to permanently lessen paperwork for school staff, eliminate much of the $262 million in yearly school lunch debt, and create a safer psychosocial environment for students, in which they know they will be fed no matter their ability to pay. Some states have made universal meals a statewide initiative that is now part of their yearly budget. Currently, California and Maine have officially passed universal free school meals, while lawmakers have proposed similar legislation in several other states, including Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Vermont, and Wisconsin.
Congressional action must be taken quickly at the federal level to help ease the burden on school officials, who are already being forced to make tough decisions about whether they will operate summer meal programs. Specifically, reauthorization of school meal waivers through the Support Kids Not Red Tape Act would prioritize reducing individual reducing individual financial hardship, increasing educational attainment, and promoting better health outcomes, which, in turn, would reduce education and health care costs.
This would enable our most vulnerable populations to keep more money in their pockets and live healthier, more fulfilling lives. The pandemic is not over, and children should not suffer from its consequences. The federal government has a small but distinct window of opportunity to do the right thing and ensure that no child in America goes to bed hungry.
The author would like to thank the policy experts at FRAC—specifically Kelsey Boone, child nutrition policy analyst—for their guidance. The author also thanks Arohi Pathak, Lily Roberts, Jill Rosenthal, Akilah Alleyne, Hailey Gibbs, Kyle Ross, Kat So, Madeline Shepherd, and CAP’s Editorial team for their valuable insights and expertise, as well as Justin Schweitzer for his thorough review and fact-checking.
*Author’s note: To calculate the decrease in meals served, the author took the countrywide total of breakfasts and lunches served during the 2020-21 school year (2,990,571,326) and subtracted that from the total for the 2018-19 school year (4,422,952,476), resulting in a 1,432,381,150 difference in meals, which is equivalent to a 32.4 percent decrease in meals served.