In less than 30 days, a slew of federal waivers that have enabled schools across the U.S. to provide free breakfast and lunch to students during the coronavirus pandemic are set to expire, potentially leaving millions of children without easy access to critical meals.
And to the dismay of advocates, Congress — which is currently on recess — doesn't appear poised to act.
"There is no urgency and political appetite to even have this conversation," Jillien Meier, director of the No Kid Hungry campaign, told Vox's Rachel Cohen on Wednesday. "Frankly this is not a priority for Congress and the White House. People are really focused on having a 'return to normal'... folks aren't talking about it and they have no clue that this crisis is looming."
In March, obstruction by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and much of his Republican caucus killed an effort to include a temporary extension of the waivers in an omnibus spending package.
First approved in 2020, the waivers have given the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) authority to lift regulatory obstacles to universal school meals, such as income-based eligibility requirements, which entailed paperwork and other red tape.
Because of the flexibility offered by the waivers, an estimated 10 million additional children nationwide were able to access school meals — progress that advocates fear will be lost if Congress allows the waivers to lapse. Some states are rushing to enact their own universal free school meal programs in anticipation of losing the waivers.
"The consequences of not extending waivers are severe," Lisa Davis, senior vice president of the advocacy organization Share Our Strength, warned in March after the Senate unveiled an omnibus spending package that omitted waiver extensions.
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"Without them, schools will face financial penalties for not meeting federal nutrition requirements, even though they have no choice," said Davis. "They will have fewer financial resources to meet higher prices for food and other goods, staffing, and transportation. Summer — already the hungriest time of year — will be particularly hard for kids when many summer sites will be unable to open."
"Children in rural communities," Davis added, "will face more barriers to accessing summer meals when important flexibilities like multiple meal pickup and delivery options disappear."
As Vox reported Wednesday, "hundreds of advocacy groups, school districts, and elected officials have urged Congress to reauthorize the waivers for the next school year, at a price tag of roughly $11 billion," but Republican lawmakers are still standing in the way.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., told Politico that "last-minute opposition to including school meal waivers in their March spending bill came from ... McConnell," Vox reported. A few weeks after that, "Stabenow introduced the Support Kids Not Red Tape Act to extend the waivers, but so far, it has formal backing only from Democrats, plus Republicans Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins."
"Even moderate Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema support the extension," the Vox report noted, referencing the "centrist" senators who have blocked much of President Biden's legislative agenda.
Last-minute pressure on Congress to preserve the school meal waivers comes amid growing evidence that child hunger is rising across the U.S. thanks to lawmakers' failure to extend the boosted Child Tax Credit (CTC), a program that Manchin opposed.
"Expiration of the advance CTC was associated with a 12% increase in food insufficiency in households with children relative to households without children by February — and rates of food insufficiency continued to climb since February," researchers Julia Raifman and Allison Bovell-Ammon wrote in a blog post for the Economic Policy Institute last month.
"Even brief disruptions in access to food can have lasting consequences," they noted. "Not having enough to eat often disrupts children's cognitive and emotional development and education. This was the case for a child who disclosed that the reason she was fidgeting and not paying attention in class was that she did not have enough food to eat."
Last year, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., led the introduction of a bill that would enact a permanent, universal and nationwide free school meals program, guaranteeing free breakfast, lunch, dinner and a snack to all school children, regardless of their family income. That legislation, which would also eliminate school meal debt, has not received a vote in either the House or the Senate.
Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., a former educator and co-sponsor of the measure, tweeted Thursday that "there is no reason that children should go hungry in the world's wealthiest nation."
"Congress needs to renew the federal school lunch waivers," Bowman added, "and guarantee meals to children in need."
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