The waivers that fed all school kids breakfast and lunch for free are set to expire. So what's next for school districts?
When schools pivoted to virtual learning early in the pandemic, the National School Lunch Program was thrown into chaos. Millions of children rely on school meals to keep hunger at bay, so school nutrition directors scrambled to adopt new, creative ways to distribute food to families. Some of these changes were improvements on the status quo, they say.
And as part of pandemic relief legislation, the federal Food and Nutrition Service agency waived the requirement that schools serve meals in a group setting, increased school-year reimbursement rates to summer levels for school food programs, and granted more flexibility in how food is prepared and packaged.
Schools started preparing bag lunches and other grab-and-go options for parents to pick up at school and take home for their kids. They even used buses to bring meals, sometimes days' worth, to pickup spots in different neighborhoods.
But all of that — the free lunches for children regardless of family income, the summer-rate reimbursements and the flexibility that some districts were able to take advantage of — is set to end, formally, on June 30. That means that as costs rise, school districts will have to return to lower rates of reimbursements, and families who don't meet the federal income requirements for free or reduced price lunches will, once again, have to pay for those meals.
Kevin Harris, the president of the Illinois School Nutrition Association and director of food services for the McHenry School District, said "there's a lot of concern about the decrease" in financial support coming from others in his position.
"Here we are, in the middle of June, and we don't know what our meal rates are going to be," Harris said. "There are a number of (legislative) bills out there, but are any of them going to be supported, or are we just going to go back to the way it was before?"
Harris said he remembered when the lunch waivers were extended last year in September, months after district lunch operations were already underway following a July 1 start to the fiscal year.
"Last year, they did not approve everything until two weeks after the school year started," he said. "They said, 'Oh by the way, we're going to this for you — go ahead and backdate it to the beginning of September.' So we actually had, in August, kids paying for their meals and then they started to in September. It was just a lot of burden on the food service people to make sure we're doing what we need to do."
Earlier this month, Politico reported officials with the Biden administration are attempting to use around $1 billion from an Agriculture Fund to help school districts, but that effort has not yet been finalized.
"I've reached out to our congress people, I've called our senators, I've left messages, and unfortunately, a lot of it seems to fall on deaf ears," Harris said.
At a recent school board meeting in McLean County's Unit 5 school district, financial chief Marty Hickman told board members positives noted in some aspects of the school budget — including the federal reimbursements for school meals — won't be reflected in the upcoming fiscal year.
"The increased revenue on the food service side from the federal reimbursement — that program for free-for-all has not been extended, still, to my knowledge, so therefore we are not expecting that large increase next year," he said.
Unit 5 director of food and nutrition services Joanna Rewerts said the district is prepared to revert to pre-pandemic practices for meal charging and despite the availability of free breakfast and lunch, "our meal counts were very similar to what they were back in 2019, when we were under the National School Lunch and Breakfast Program."
Rewerts said the district "did not calculate if there were more paid families taking advantage of the free meals or not."
"Overall, the number of lunches and breakfasts that we served was very similar to pre-COVID times," she said.
District 87 outgoing superintendent Barry Reilly said Bloomington's district, too, is prepared to revert to pre-pandemic practices, noting that parents who do need to fill out forms to get free or reduced-price lunches will need to remember to do that after two school years of not having to do so.
"Personally, I feel the time is right for the nation to move to the universal feeding of students," ILSNA president Harris said. "Right now, over 50% of the population of the United States is receiving free or reduced priced meals. Going forward, I don't think it would be that big of a hit to include all students on our free meals at this point."
NPR contributed to this report.