Pre-K student Maelaun Ebbins, 4, enjoys lunch at Langley K-8 School on Thursday, Dec. 23, 2021, in the Sheraden neighborhood in Pittsburgh. (Andrew Rush/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)

Throughout the pandemic, Donna Martin’s lunches have been a lifeline for the public school students in rural Burke County, Georgia, where she serves as nutrition director. One in five citizens lives in poverty in this east Georgia county of roughly 25,000, half an hour south of Augusta. Nearly two-thirds of the district’s 4,100 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch (meaning that family incomes fall below 185 percent of the federal poverty line).

Martin says the meals her staff prepares (breakfast, lunch, and even dinner) are often the healthiest—and sometimes the only—food her students see each day. “Our kids are food insecure, and they’re hungry,” she said. “But we offer amazing food, and we offer a lot of choices every day.” On the Monday we spoke, the menu included turkey tetrazzini, broccoli, and carrot sticks with homemade ranch dressing, and made-from-scratch strawberry muffins. “And we have ‘fruit-mallow,’ which is one of my favorites,” Martin said. “It’s fruit cocktail, but it’s got extra cherries and marshmallows, which the kids really like.” 

But providing nutritious, tasty meals like these could soon get a lot harder for Martin and her staff, who’ve already been scrambling to manage supply chain disruptions and soaring costs as the pandemic has worn on. “Our food prices have gone up 25 percent,” Martin says.

The $1.5 trillion spending bill working its way to President Joe Biden’s desk that funds the federal government through September fails to extend crucial funding and flexibility provided by Congress to school meal programs last year. The coronavirus relief packages passed in 2020 and 2021 added $8.8 billion to the government’s budget for child nutrition programs and authorized the Department of Agriculture to issue “waivers“ relaxing program requirements and boosting reimbursements to schools for meals served—which, in Martin’s case, is an increase to about $3.50 per lunch. Importantly, these waivers also enabled universal access to free lunch for most of the past two years, a boon for families who abruptly lost jobs or income due to the pandemic. 

Despite an avalanche of bipartisan appeals from child nutrition advocates, school districts, nonprofits, and faith-based organizations, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell reportedly blocked the extension of these provisions. In fact, according to Politico, he was “forcefully opposing” them because of the $11 billion price tag. It’s not the first time McConnell has shortchanged poor children. Last fall, he attacked the expanded child tax credit included in the COVID relief package as “monthly welfare deposits” and led the charge to let the credits lapse in January. 

The school meal provisions expire June 30, and the consequences could be dire. “Millions of kids are going to lose access to summer meals on July 1,” says Crystal FitzSimons, director of School and Out of School Time Programs for the Food Research and Action Center.

The funds and flexibility provided by the school nutrition waivers have been critical for school districts during the pandemic. One such waiver, for instance, suspended the requirement that meals be served in “congregate” settings—i.e., to groups in school cafeterias. Burke County’s Martin used this flexibility to send home meal boxes to needy students over the summer and while schools were closed last year. 

Other waivers relaxed the rules regarding when meals must be served and allowed parents to pick up food. This allowed districts to send food home to kids in quarantine and to distribute meals at pop-up sites or along bus routes (as Fairfax County and other districts did during lockdown). Districts were also allowed to receive the higher summer meal reimbursement rate during the school year, and they haven’t faced penalties for running short of milk or other foods required under current regulations. During the 2020–21 school year, schools fed an average of 19.8 million children every day for lunch and nearly 14 million children for breakfast. Summer meal programs, many of which are also school based, served 4.7 million children.

Though schools are now shedding mask requirements and resolutely heading toward “normal,” districts’ meal programs are still very much on pandemic footing, facing rising costs for food, fuel, and labor and supply disruptions to boot. As a result, the waivers are still essential. 

According to a recent USDA study, 92 percent of school meal programs have had trouble securing food, drinks, or supplies this school year, and 67 percent reported higher operations costs. Ninety percent also rely on the higher reimbursements provided by the waivers to compensate for these extra expenses. The average school district will, however, lose 40 percent of its funding for school lunches once the waivers expire, according to a USDA estimate provided to The Washington Post.

Galloping inflation is also squeezing household finances, which means that more families will be looking to school meals to keep their children fed. One recent survey found that 64 percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, including nearly half (48 percent) of families earning six figures. The expiration of the waivers, however, means the end of universal free lunch next fall. For families on the cusp of eligibility when the rules return to the status quo ante, school lunch might be one more thing they can no longer afford. 

The pandemic has been particularly cruel to children, many of whom have suffered the isolation of school closures and the loss of caregivers to the virus. More than 200,000 children in the U.S. have lost a primary caregiver, according to one estimate. Low-income children have borne the heaviest burden, living in communities disproportionately impacted by COVID. Now congressional Republicans are stripping poor children of an exceedingly modest palliative—access to school meals. 

In Burke County, Martin worries that half of her students won’t eat this summer if Congress doesn’t act. “If we don’t get these waivers, it is just going to be a catastrophe,” she said.

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Anne Kim

Anne Kim is a Washington Monthly contributing editor and the author of Abandoned: America’s Lost Youth and the Crisis of Disconnection. Follow Anne on Twitter @Anne_S_Kim.