Schools across the country are scrambling to keep feeding America’s children. Today, they breathe a sigh of relief, but only for a moment.
Child nutrition waivers passed by Congress in early 2020 in response to COVID-19 made all students eligible for free meals and provided schools with higher reimbursements and more flexibility in how meals are served. served to meet urgent needs. The waivers were due to expire on June 30, and the consequences of doing nothing would have been severe. Although the vast majority of schools have returned to in-person learning, they continue to glean with staff shortages, rising costs and supply chain disruptions, which is why more than 90% of school food authorities relied on waivers in the 2021-22 school year to stay afloat. Letting the waivers expire now would have deprived millions of children of the school meals that provide many children almost half of their daily calories and are a coherent source good nutrition – at a time when more than 23 million families in the United States are experiencing food insecuritythe highest total for more than a year.
As leaders of two nonprofit organizations committed to making healthy school meals an integral part of children’s learning, long-term development, and overall well-being, we are thrilled that Congress has stepped up to prevent an impending calamity. The “Keep Kids Fed Act”, passed this week in an extremely bipartisan way, ensures that all children continue to be entitled to free meals throughout the summer. It will also help schools by offering higher reimbursement rates throughout the 2022-2023 school year.
This is significant progress, but it should be seen as a first step, not a final step. Waivers have been among the most notable political successes of the past 2+ years – a great example of Congress coming together to meet the needs of American families. Ten million more children had free access to healthy meals. The schools using the waivers were less likely operate in deficit this school year. Thanks to greater flexibility, summer meal programs – which typically struggle with low attendance – served more than 4 billion meals during the summers of 2020 and 2021, almost equivalent to the total production of summer meals between 1982 and 2019. These results build on previous to research finding that providing free healthy school meals to all students can reduce rates of food insecurity, improve children’s diets and academic performance, and generate more revenue for schools.
This record of success offers compelling reasons to extend child nutrition waivers through the 2022-23 school year. Indeed, while this bill helps our country avoid the worst short-term outcomes, it is far from perfect. Parents and guardians will again have to apply for free or reduced-price meals at the end of the summer – a cumbersome process that does not reach all children in need – while schools will have to devote limited resources to the eligibility check. This means that some children will again be forced to stand in a different line or receive a different meal from their peers, which can invite stigma and shame. The charge of the school meals debt will return.
We can and must do better. Our children deserve better.
Waivers offer a compelling roadmap for long-term improvement of vital school meals programs. Despite the passage of the Keep Kids Fed Act, more help is needed – millions of households are struggling to put food on the table and schools are pleading for additional help. State officials nationwide should follow the lead of California, Maine and Vermont by enacting laws to provide free school meals to all students for at least the 2022-2023 school year. We encourage Congress to expand the community eligibility provision, which in recent years has allowed schools with at least 40 percent of students living in poverty to serve meals to all students at no cost. Federal policymakers should rely on science-based standards to ensure school lunches provide the nutrition all children need to thrive. And we hope the next White House Conference on hunger, nutrition and health will inspire national action to address the systemic inequalities in nutrition policy that have plagued this nation for generations.
By any objective measure, ending federal child nutrition waivers now would have been a terrible mistake. We applaud this bipartisan action by Congress. However, the reprieve that has just been granted, if real, is only temporary. For the sake of our nation’s children, we need lawmakers to follow the facts, listen to their conscience, and use that extra time wisely to get the job done.
Richard E. Besser, a pediatrician, is president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and former acting director of the CDC. Nancy Brown is the CEO of the American Heart Association. The views expressed in this story are not those of ABC News.