CULPEPER STAR-EXPONENT, ADELE UPHAUS–CONNER
Last summer, the Fredericksburg Regional Food Bank served 32,000 meals to area children.
That’s more than three times as many meals as were served during the summer 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Carey Sealy, director of programs for the regional food bank, said the exponential growth was made possible by waivers put in place by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Services as a result of the pandemic.
The waivers allow schools and summer feeding programs greater flexibility to plan and distribute meals. They allow schools to feed all children for free, regardless of income, and have done away with much of the red tape that can prevent families from accessing school meals—and they are set to expire on June 30.
Congress last month passed a $1.5 trillion omnibus spending bill that failed to include authorization to extend the waivers beyond June, and the sudden end has local school nutrition and summer feeding programs wondering how they will continue providing meals.
“I know not everybody will understand, but at the same time, it’s just really important that every kid has the ability to have nutritious food,” Sealy said.
The child nutrition waivers were first put in place in March 2020 as part of the first COVID-19 aid package.
Last summer, the food bank used waivers permitting non-congregate—or “grab and go”—meal service, allowing meals to be served outside of traditional times and allowing parents and guardians to pick up meals on behalf of their children to expand the reach and impact of its summer feeding program.
Under the pre-pandemic model, parents had to bring children to a group site within a certain time period to sit and eat the meal.
Sealy said the changes enabled by the waivers made it easier for working parents to participate.
“I feel like grab-and-go and pick-up is so much more convenient and there is a lot less stigma,” she said. “[Under the old model] you’re requiring the parents to do a lot to make sure their child has lunch when you’re bringing them to a site, sitting with them to eat and then taking them home.”
Without the waivers, Sealy said three summer feeding sites will have to close and there could be as much as a 42 percent decline in participation.
The Salem Church Library site, which Sealy said has been “a tried and true feeding site” for many years, would have to close because it no longer has the volunteer pool to operate a group meal site.
“Volunteers are needed to receive the children, count the meals, occupy the children, plan and lead activities—it takes a big volunteer pool,” Sealy said.
The child nutrition waivers also suspend the area eligibility requirement—by which sites that provide free meals must be located in school districts where at least 50 percent of the population qualifies for free lunch—and the income eligibility requirement.
Two more of the food bank’s summer feeding sites—the Caroline YMCA and Eastland United Methodist Church in Spotsylvania—would have to close without those waivers, Sealy said.
Local school divisions have used the waivers—in particular, the waiver to allow the Seamless Summer Option during the school year—to provide free breakfast and lunch to all children since spring of 2020.
“Not only are we feeding everyone for free, but we get reimbursed for everything,” said Keith Conner, supervisor of nutrition service for Caroline County Public Schools. “Under [the Seamless Summer Option], we are reimbursed for 100 percent for every meal we serve at the higher summer feeding program rate that is usually used for non-school entities.”
Conner said the higher reimbursement rate has helped to counteract the effect of inflation and supply chain disruptions.
“Some supplies have doubled in cost,” he said. “There have been dramatic price increases in food—sometimes 25 percent increases. So that additional funding went a long way.”
Another of the national waivers that is set to expire permits flexibility in USDA nutrition requirements for whole grains and unflavored milk.
Conner said that due to supply chain disruptions, often products that meet those requirements are unavailable.
“We’re still dealing with [disruption] in almost every order,” he said. “Sometimes 10 to 20 percent of the order is not in stock. The waivers gave us flexibility to bring in similar products of similar quality.”
“Come July 1, from what we understand, those flexibilities are gone out the window,” Conner continued. “That’s going to create some challenges. It’s unfortunate that they’ve decided that magically on July 1, [supply chain disruptions] are going away, because we know we’ll be dealing with these issues for months if not a year to come.”
Brian Kiernan, food services director for Fredericksburg City Public Schools, said that failure to extend the waiver allowing non-congregate meal service will drastically affect his ability to serve summer meals to the city’s children.
This summer, Kiernan said, FCPS will have four mobile food trucks prepared to hit the city’s roads every day. Of the 35–40 stops on the trucks’ routes, at least half are apartment complexes and only a small handful of those have a centralized, sheltered area where kids can sit to eat.
If the waiver permitting non-congregate meal service is not renewed, the trucks will only be able to stop at those few locations.
“The reality is, our kids come down to the truck, get a meal and go back to their apartments to eat it,” Kiernan said. “Oftentimes, the parents aren’t home. So what do we do [if the waiver is not renewed]? We have four trucks ready to go out every day, but now we’re going out and there will be kids we can’t feed because there’s not a central location for them to eat.”
“We designed our mobile program because kids can’t get to these centralized locations to eat,” Kiernan continued. “This directly stabs our mobile program in the back.”
Earlier this year, U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D–7th District, introduced a bill that she is co-sponsoring with one Democrat and two Republican representatives. The Keeping School Meals Flexible Act would extend the USDA’s authority to renew the child nutrition waivers through June 30, 2023.
Extending the waivers would cost about $11 billion, Spanberger’s office estimated.
In an April 12 discussion with school and community meal providers sponsored by No Kid Hungry Virginia, Spanberger said feeding children is “not a partisan issue.”
“These waivers are vital to schools across Virginia,” she said. “In early days of the pandemic, Congress reacted quickly. Two years later, we’re in a different place, but still in a challenged position, and new challenges still necessitate these waivers. How can we we ensure that the school nutrition workforce is able to meet their duties and responsibilities?”
Spanberger said 52 senators have expressed support for a similar bill introduced by Michigan Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow.