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Schools in Ohio could soon lose pandemic relief waivers

Three students are in line for lunch at a school cafeteria.  They're greeted by smiling cafeteria workers in aprons.
Peter Howard
/
USDA Flickr Creative Commons
Back in March of 2020, the USDA waived a lot of the red tape around school meals as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture released a survey this month that showed over 90% of midwest schools used waivers to serve free meals to students throughout the pandemic. But those waivers are set to expire this summer.

Back in March of 2020, the USDA waived a lot of the red tape around school meals as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

For schools participating in the National School Lunch Program, some of those waivers included reimbursing the school at the maximum amount at $4.25 per meal through the Summer Food Service Program, according to a Federal Register report.

Part of the increase was so that schools could keep up with the rising cost of food prices, but to also serve free lunch to all students, whether or not they were eligible.

But Beth Wallace, the president of the School Nutrition Association, said that when the waivers expire, it will have a major impact on children who might not be able to afford lunch.

“I do believe our big challenge for the 2022-2023 school year will be the great year of debt. And we need to be prepared for a large increase in what the cost of buying a meal is going to be.” Wallace said.

There’s no official count on how much debt school districts have, but a survey from 2019 by SNA reported a median lunch debt of $825 among the smallest districts to $32,000 among the largest.

Wallace said she expects that debt to increase, and along with ongoing food supply chain disruptions and rising costs of food, she said there’s also the challenge of letting parents know that they need to start filling out the paperwork if their child is eligible for free or reduced lunch.

“It’s been two years now that we haven't had to ask a student to pay or paying students to pay for a meal,” Wallace said. “And we need to be prepared for a large increase in what the cost of buying a meal is going to be.”

Wallace added school districts are asking for one more year to allow schools to stabilize. The waivers can only get extended at the federal level though.

During a tour to Central State University on Thursday, Sen. Sherrod Brown, who is on the Senate Agriculture committee, said he’s working on a bipartisan bill along with other senators to save the waivers for one more year.

“So far it’s been a partisan vote, we’ve got to attract one or two Republicans,” Brown said. “I still can't believe that fighting hunger in this country should be a partisan issue, the damage is too much if we don't [pass the bill].”

Alejandro Figueroa is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Support for WYSO's reporting on food and food insecurity in the Miami Valley comes from the CareSource Foundation.