Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is blocking the extension of child nutrition waivers that made school lunches free during the pandemic, even as federal funding for the program is set to expire on Friday.
"McConnell is not budging," a person close to the ongoing negotiations told Politico. "It hurts everybody in every state. These are things Republicans want."
The development centers on an omnibus Democratic-backed spending package, set to be unveiled as soon as Tuesday, that would, among other things, allow the Department of Agriculture (USDA) to extend child nutrition waivers in schools across the country.
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The waivers were first approved back in March 2020, at the height of the pandemic, to help schools, government agencies, and nonprofits continue feeding kids despite pandemic-era challenges, including school closures, according to The Washington Post. The program was repeatedly extended in recent years by President Biden and former President Donald Trump as the COVID-19 crisis dragged on.
But now, Republicans are reportedly blocking the passage of the provision by arguing that it was designed to serve only as a form of temporary relief.
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"Parents and Republicans are for reopening our schools. Many of these waivers were designed to encourage schools to close and go virtual," an aide familiar with the matter told Politico. "This is not a message we should be sending to schools at this point, when almost everyone agrees we should be returning to normal."
The waivers are set to remain in place until the end of the school year, according to CNN. But if they are ultimately dropped, schools are likely to see a 40% reduction in lunch reimbursements from the federal government. The USDA has reportedly been reimbursing schools with an average of $4.56 per meal, as opposed to the typical amount of $2.91. But without these waivers, schools would not be able to cover the higher costs of food provisions amid the supply chain disruptions.
"The need is greater now than ever," Jack Miniard, president of the Kentucky School Nutrition Association, wrote to McConnell this week in a letter obtained by CNN. "While the virus is waning, the effects persist."
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, told the Post that he requested to McConnell that the program be extended.
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"I realize that they've got a lot on their plate. But the failure of Republicans to respond to this means that kids are going to have less on their plates," Vilsack said. "And there's no reason for this. There's no reason for this."
Without the waivers, schools might be fined for failing to meet the federal school lunch requirements, even by no fault of their own.