School Meals – Access For All Students

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When The CARES Act was passed into law, it did more than provide economic relief for individuals and businesses. Out of the $2 trillion dollars in aid allocated for the CARES Act, $30.75 billion had been provisioned for the Education Stabilization Fund, which housed several grants meant to aid our school systems. The Education Stabilization fund allowed leadership personnel across early education to university levels the opportunity to address the challenges they faced due to COVID-19. One challenge is administering school meal programs. 

Schools closed their doors, but they didn’t stop feeding students, and the financial and logistical requirements didn’t make it easy for school officials to accomplish this. Now, school budgets have much more to account for outside of their typical food and labor costs. In Jessica Fu’s article for The Counter, she stated that “the pandemic has ratcheted up operating costs for schools that are still providing meal service. Nutrition directors now have to factor in the cost of personal protective equipment for their staff, as well as ancillary spending on needs like extra food packaging”. Something else they had to address was a delivery system that would get their students the food they need. The result was the “grab-and-go” model, the creation of drive-thru systems, and enlisting bus drivers to make home visits with food.

Are America's Children in Jeopardy?

Although the Families First Coronavirus Response Act gave the USDA power to grant waivers and increase federal spending at the state level for qualified nutrition-based programs, which included school lunch programs, the CARES Act granted the additional funding necessary to satisfy the new costs associated with distanced learning and coronavirus related issues. Yet, as Congress continues to deliberate over the details of the next pandemic relief plan, children benefiting from school-based meal programs may be affected by the stagnation. In an article published in July from Politico, Helena Bottemiller Evich and Juan Perez Jr. reported that “As the coronavirus health crisis exploded, the government allowed most families to pick up free meals from whichever school was closest or most convenient without proving they were low-income. But that effort is on the verge of expiring…”

There had been what the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), a segment of the USDA that administers several federally based nutrition programs (including school meals), called “significant program flexibilities and contingencies” allowed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. A press release from the USDA on March 26th also contained language to support this leniency. In it, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue confirms that flexibilities would “Make it easier for children, seniors and individuals with disabilities to get food during the COVID-19 national emergency and remove administrative roadblocks.” But as we move into the new academic school year without a new relief bill in place, it’s uncertain if or how much funding will be given to schools, or if the USDA will continue extending waivers to make meal access inclusive for all students.

How We're Moving Ahead

The most recently introduced relief package, the HEALS Act, set aside $105 billion for the Education Stabilization Fund with $70 billion provisioned for Elementary and Secondary institutions. One-third of that amount would become immediately available for use across school districts and private schools, while the remaining two thirds would be used to support school reopenings for in-person instruction. Additionally, funding would be “Awarded based on certain minimum opening requirements and other criteria established by the state”. The relief package gives no direct indication that schools would receive the necessary funding and legislative support to continue school-based meal programs. It questions how schools choosing to operate remotely will receive the financial aid required to operate at full capacity. 

The US economy is rebounding slowly, but CNN Business reports that while July will bring in an added 2.3 million jobs to the month’s job report, our employment status is “still higher than during the worst period of the financial crisis”. There’s still a great deal of financial insecurity right now, which can quickly push households into a state of food insecurity. The benefit behind schools receiving continued federal funding and support is obvious.These uncertain times prove how much value parents and caretakers can derive from their children receiving free school meals, and their children deserve consistent access to nutritious food. It needs to happen and be enough to cover the cost of feeding all students, while making sure that they’re able to access these meals by any reasonable means necessary. 

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