Lawmakers reach bipartisan deal to aid school meal providers

Agreement would allow schools more flexibility in where and how they operate summer food programs

A cafeteria worker prepares lunch for students at Freedom Preparatory Academy on Sept. 10, 2020 in Provo, Utah. (George Frey/AFP via Getty Images file photo)
A cafeteria worker prepares lunch for students at Freedom Preparatory Academy on Sept. 10, 2020 in Provo, Utah. (George Frey/AFP via Getty Images file photo)
Posted June 22, 2022 at 7:09am

A deal between Democratic and Republican committee leaders would help school meal providers facing higher food costs as well as ease a transition from federal government policies that provided universal free meals to many children during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and ranking member John Boozman, R-Ark., and House Education and Labor Chairman Robert C. Scott, D-Va., and ranking member Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., announced an agreement and legislation that would provide higher lunch and breakfast per-meal reimbursements for the 2022-23 school year.

The bill would provide 40 cents in federal reimbursement per lunch and 15 cents in reimbursement per breakfast meal above the annual adjustment for inflation. The next adjustment is July 1.

The two committees have jurisdiction over child nutrition programs, including the national school lunch and breakfast programs. To pay for the policies, more than $3 billion would be rescinded from three pandemic relief bills.

Foxx said the deal balanced costs and needs to “uphold our responsibility to taxpayers and abide by the principle that aid should be targeted and temporary while also helping students truly in need.”

Boozman said it was important to provide meal providers assistance without additional spending.

“As I visit with our school nutrition professionals, it is quite clear that they need continued flexibilities to cope with ongoing supply chain issues,” Boozman said.

Democrats Stabenow and Scott said the agreement isn't everything they wanted but it should deliver relief to schools and children.

“With 90 percent of our schools still facing challenges as they return to normal operations, this will give our schools and summer meal programs much-needed support to deal with ongoing food service issues,” Stabenow said in a statement.

Added Scott, “This bill provides additional assistance to ensure that students can get the nutrition they need to help them learn and grow.”

The agreement would continue for this summer a set of policies that allow schools and organizations flexibility in where and how they operate summer food programs.

Without the extension, providers would be limited to locations where at least 50 percent of the children come from families with incomes at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty line. Without the flexibility, parents wouldn’t be able to pick up meals for their children.

The summer meal waivers, as well as waivers that provided higher per-meal reimbursements, made free meals available to students of all incomes and allowed flexibility on how and where meals are provided. They are set to expire June 30 without congressional action.

If Congress can pass legislation, schools and organizations just starting their summer programs might be able to take advantage. But it’s unclear whether operations that began in May would be able to adjust and expand their operations.

Across-the-board free meals wouldn't be an option under the agreement, but children who meet income requirements for reduced-price meals wouldn't be required to make a copay during the 2022-23 school year.

Beth Wallace, president of the School Nutrition Association, said the congressional agreement is critical for the school food managers her organization represents.

“With crucial federal waivers on the verge of expiring, this agreement offers school meal programs a lifeline to help build back toward normal operations,” Wallace said in a statement.

Lisa Davis, senior vice president for Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign, said summer operations will have to scramble if Congress can quickly pass legislation.

“Time is of the essence, especially for those operating summer meals sites without the certainty and flexibility of the waivers who will face difficulties turning on a dime,” Davis said in a statement.

Davis said the waivers have helped to extend the reach of summer programs that are key for children who rely for much of the year on school meals and who have less access to food during the summer.