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School meal waivers expire in 9 days. After axing them, Congress may try to save them

A student pays for lunch of fruits and vegetables during a school lunch program.
Paul Sakuma
A student pays for lunch of fruits and vegetables during a school lunch program.

A bipartisan group of four lawmakers on Tuesday announced a bill that would extend the school meal waivers that have been a lifeline for schools and families during the pandemic.

The waivers were originally created as a part of pandemic relief at the start of 2020. They allow the Agriculture Department to waive various requirements that govern how schools can serve meals and who can get them. The waivers also increased the reimbursement rates for school food programs.

Lawmakers failed to extend those waivers one more academic school year when they were excluded from the budget signed by President Joe Biden in March, resulting in a scramble for administrators and parents nationwide. School leaders and parents had weeks to prepare for summer meal programs without the waivers that allowed more summer meal sites. They also had to get up to speed on how fall meals would function with the return of free and reduced-price meal applications and continued supply chain challenges that meant some foods were not always available.

Now, Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and John Boozman, R-Ark., and Reps. Bobby Scott, D-Va., and Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., have released the Keep Kids Fed Act with the goal of passing the bill out of both chambers and to Biden's desk before the waivers expire on June 30.

The bill, which totals about $3 billion but is budget-neutral to ease GOP concerns the effort would be too costly, would fully extend all waivers through the summer to allow meal deliveries and grab-and-go options for students. It would also extend supply chain flexibilities and higher reimbursement rates through the 2022-2023 school year. But the biggest omission is the exclusion of flexibilities that removed free and reduced-price meal applications, giving every student free meals. That means that families would need to return to filling out applications to qualify.

"Time is running out. My agreement with Senator Boozman, Representative Scott and Representative Foxx will help keep kids fed and is fully paid for," said Stabenow in a statement. "With 90% of our schools still facing challenges as they return to normal operations, this will give our schools and summer meal programs much-needed support to deal with ongoing food service issues. Congress needs to act swiftly to pass this critical help."

There is still no clear path to passage, according to aides familiar with negotiations, but the goal is to move the measure before the end-of-month deadline and any vote could come as soon as Wednesday.

For months, school food and nutrition advocates and USDA officials have raised the alarm over the expiring waivers, urging for Congress to extend them.

During a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing in May, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack warned lawmakers that school budgets could decrease by 40 percent as a result of the ended waivers due to rising food, supply and labor costs.

"We know these waivers are needed and that they work. The reach of the summer meals program increased dramatically with them,doubling in 2021 and even tripling in 2020," said Lisa Davis, senior vice president of Share Our Strength's No Kid Hungry campaign in a statement. "While these waivers don't solve supply chain issues, lower the rising cost of food and gas, or solve our nation's inflation problem, they do help soften their impact on schools and community organizations and, ultimately, keep kids fed and nourished."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.