Richmond Times-Dispatch: Editorial: Extending flexibility for school meals is the right thing to do

RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH, EDITORIAL

When COVID-19 shuttered school buildings across the country, one of the core questions government and education leaders had to grapple with was: How will children continue to get fed?

Congress acted quickly in March 2020, granting the United States Department of Agriculture the authority to create some flexibility for local child nutrition operators. The USDA website outlines 12 steps that have helped providers serve students during trying times.

Examples include: a meal times waiver that allows kids to be served outside of standard breakfast or lunch hours; a meal pickup waiver that permits parents to acquire food for their children, without them being present; and a noncongregate feeding waiver that lets students eat in settings other than on-site school group environments.

If Congress does not act, these child nutrition program options will expire on June 30. Extending flexibility for school meals is the right thing to do.

The “Keeping School Meals Flexible Act” (introduced by Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th) and the “Support Kids Not Red Tape Act of 2022” (cosponsored by Virginia Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine) would maintain USDA waivers through the 2022-23 school year. The Senate bill would add the summer of 2023.

While students have returned to classrooms, the idea of resuming “normal meal operations” is not within reach right now. Prices at gas stations and grocery stores are high due to inflation. Supply chain disruptions have kept certain products from being regularly available. Staffing shortages have added challenges to running meal programs.

The end result is a series of bottlenecks for nutrition operators on the front lines of keeping Virginia children fed. In a March national USDA report, more than 90% of school food authorities reported struggles in procuring supplies during the 2021-22 school year.

“On one of our most recent orders, we saw 38 substitutions and 14 items that didn’t come at all,” Casey Dickinson, associate director of food and nutrition services at Chesterfield County Public Schools, said during a recent panel hosted by Spanberger. “The nutritious meals that are getting out the door are only happening because of the amazing work of the staff that are working tirelessly to see them through.”

Even with effective vaccines, COVID-19 cases continue to circulate in communities and households across Virginia. And as other COVID-era assistance programs come to a close, from the local Virginia Rent Relief Program to the national child tax credit, families are continuing to fight instability and poverty.

Under prepandemic regulations, USDA Summer Food Service Program sites faced a different set of criteria than during the school year. In prewaiver times, any child — regardless of family income — was able to access a meal when school was not in session. But the facilities serving food had to be within an attendance area or a census tract where 50% or more children were eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

In a recent interview with RTD Opinions, No Kid Hungry Virginia Director Sarah Steely explained how under normal operating circumstances, Powhatan County would have zero summer meal sites, leading to access barriers for some families. But with waivers in place, using the USDA’s online Summer Meals Site Finder tool, the ZIP code 23139 had three nearby locations in 2021 — Powhatan Elementary, Powhatan Middle and Pocahontas Elementary schools.

“We know that school meals are a lifeline for families who qualify for free and reduced [price] meals that are just a fender bender or a broken arm away from financial insecurity or food insecurity,” Steely told RTD Opinions. “This was a way of making their lives easier and ensuring their kids’ bellies stay fed.”

Now is not the time to remove that sense of security. The idea of returning to “normal meal operations” overlooks the solutions that came out of a crisis, as well as fresh hurdles families and operators currently are facing. Government and education leaders need to further innovate and figure out ways to extend flexibility for school meals.

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