As Universal School Meals Program comes to an end, Biden considers other ways to get food to school kids

“The USDA is considering all the tools at its disposal to ease the burden the pandemic has caused on school districts, but the magnitude of this problem requires congressional action,” a department spokesperson said in a statement. “School districts and American families need help, and Congress can provide that help.”

Biden officials are scrambling to find even a small amount of money for school lunches, after Congress failed to expand the current universal school lunch waivers it approved in the first months of Covid-19. These waivers not only allowed schools to provide free meals to every student, regardless of income, reducing red tape, but they also allowed school officials to purchase any food available for school meals, regardless of federal nutritional requirements and without financial penalty. Waivers, however, expire on June 30. And administration officials acknowledge the impact will be huge, even if they release about $1 billion more to buy more food.

Funding for school lunches, like other government aid offered during the pandemic, has been at the center of a political battle between Democrats and Republicans. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and most Republicans in Congress oppose any move to expand funding, citing the significant cost — about $11 billion. Democrats and the White House were caught off guard by their opposition this spring and scrambled over the ensuing months to find an alternative before the expiration date.

A group of senators, led by the Chairman of the Agriculture Committee Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), still hope to reach an agreement to fund a full waiver extension. Stabenow pushed again for an extension in the Senate on Wednesday, but lamented that only two Republicans currently support such a move — Sens. Lisa Murkowski from Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine. Stabenow, however, discusses with the Republican senator. John Boozman (Ark.), the top Republican on the Agriculture Committee, to try to reach a deal, according to two people.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack also personally urged McConnell and other Republican senators at a hearing late last month to reconsider their opposition to the extension.

When McConnell argued that the Biden administration was to blame for families struggling with high inflation, Vilsack replied, “That’s why we’ve called for universal free school meals to continue for one more year.”

Vilsack told reporters after the hearing that he discussed the waivers with Boozman and Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota, but the effort to expand funding “didn’t work because [congressional] the leaders made the decision not to allow it to operate. He said he was still “hopeful” that Congress would extend the waivers, but he promised the USDA would look for alternatives, even if it couldn’t fund a full solution.

Once pandemic-era waivers end, schools will be financially penalized if they don’t serve the right meal options or don’t meet specific nutritional requirements, said Jillien Meier, director of partnerships and strategies at campaign by anti-hunger group No Kid Hungry. The waivers give schools the flexibility to substitute whatever food they can find as they grapple with serious supply chain issues for school food supplies and high consumer costs.

Hunger advocates argue that the waivers have prevented the worst of the expected increase in food insecurity during the pandemic. And they warn that the loss of funding from July will sharply increase the hunger of millions of Americans who relied on the program. Some food vendors have already started canceling school orders before waivers expire, in part because of the high cost of food.

“We expected child food insecurity to skyrocket throughout the pandemic, but it has remained largely unchanged,” Meier said. “We fully attribute this to school meal waivers.”

“Now we’re just going to cancel all of that,” Meier said.

Republicans disagree with how the Biden administration has used pandemic emergency authorities to increase federal nutrition programs.

“This is another example of my colleagues trying to take a pandemic emergency – the exemptions – and turn them into permanent changes that last forever,” the senator said. Thomas Tillis (RN.C.) said in March.

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