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COVID taught us to expect challenges — here’s one thing Congress can do to make things easier

The past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic have given us one certainty: new challenges can arise at any time. Yet, even during these chaotic times, schools and local organizations have continued to make sure kids get healthy food and the nutrition they need. 

But their ability to continue doing so is on the line if Congress doesn’t take action on critical child nutrition waivers. 

Early in the pandemic, Congress gave the U.S. Department of Agriculture the authority to issue national waivers that made it possible for schools and local organizations to adapt their programs so they could safely reach kids with the food they need. These waivers did things like allow meals to be served outside of the cafeteria and at flexible times, allowing kids to eat in smaller groups like classrooms, pods or even outdoors. They waived penalties for challenges caused by strained supply chains and increased meal reimbursements recognizing food price inflation. They eliminated the need for staff to verify whether each child is receiving paid, free or reduced price meals, reducing lines, crowding and risk of COVID infection. And they allowed parents to pick up multiple meals at once for students learning from home and during the summer months and for those meals to be delivered directly to impacted kids.

The result? Schools and other organizations were able to keep safely serving meals to kids who need them.

But these waivers expire on June 30, even though the challenges school meal programs are facing will not be over by then. The USDA needs authority from Congress to extend waivers for the summer months and through the 2022-23 school year. 

This is critical. Schools and community organizations are already trying to establish sites to serve summer meals, create budgets, place food orders, coordinate and train their staff and alert families in need about how and where to find programs. It is hard to do this during a time of supply chain issues, staffing challenges and COVID surges. It is impossible without having the flexibilities and resources the waivers provide.

If Congress does not renew the USDA’s authority to issue these waivers, it will make it much harder for the agency to help schools respond to new challenges in real time or for schools to budget and plan effectively as they transition back to more normal operations. 

Acting now will ensure that school districts and community organizations feeding kids have the tools and time they need to make plans to ensure kids are consistently getting the food they need. 

These waivers are essential. We’re hearing from schools nationwide the deep concerns they have if the waivers expire. From the day-to-day changes schools continue to face, to ensuring equitable access to meals despite transportation issues or the inability to pick up meals — the need for continued flexibility has not abated. School operations continue to be modified to protect students, teachers and staff from the spread of COVID and this dictates a need to continue the flexibilities provided by these critical child nutrition waivers.

This is important for next school year and equally so for the summertime. Without the assurance of continued flexibility to meet these ongoing challenges, many summer meal sites may not open this year. 

The consequences couldn’t be more severe. When kids don’t get the food they need, there are serious and long-term implications on their physical and mental health, their academic achievement and even their future economic prosperity. 

Throughout this pandemic, Congress has taken action to fight childhood hunger. These tactics helped stave off greater rates of food insecurity despite the severe economic hardships brought on by the pandemic. We need them to continue fighting for kids as we continue along the path of recovery.

To make sure kids continue to get the food they need, Congress must authorize USDA to grant nationwide child nutrition waivers as needed through the 2022-23 school year.

Lisa Davis is the senior vice president of Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign.

Tags Food insecurity school lunch

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