As meal waivers end, schools grapple with increased costs and supply chain issues

By MARY SELL and MOLLEE BRELAND, Alabama Daily News

AUBURN, Ala. – Federal waivers that have allowed schools to be more flexible in their meal delivery, provide them free to all students and address supply chain issues end this month.

Several state school systems have advocated for an extension of U.S. Department of Agriculture waivers that first went into effect in March 2020, but congressional action now seems unlikely. Headteachers are reminding low-income families to apply for reduced or free meals for the upcoming school year, which they have not had to do for the past two school years.

“Applications must be available by August 1,” said Julie Bone, child nutrition program director for Decatur City Schools. “Once they don’t sign it, they won’t get a free lunch.”

To qualify for discounted meals, a family of four must earn less than $51,338. For free meals, a family of four must earn less than $36,075.

Bone is one of many to have asked for an extension of waivers.

“As economic factors increase, a family’s last concern should be that their child receives a basic meal at school,” she said.

In February, hundreds of advocacy organizations and local schools across the country, including about 40 from Alabama, signed a letter asking Congress extend exemptions.

“Without these waivers, child nutrition programs would not have been able to respond adequately to the fallout from COVID-19. Throughout the pandemic, schools and community meal sponsors have relied on these waivers to feed children during short- and long-term closures, alleviate child hunger, and advance racial equity and good. – to be children.

The June 30 expiration also takes away the USDA’s ability to respond to supply chain, operations, and access challenges that are likely despite what will hopefully be the first year back to the normal school operations,” the letter read. “Furthermore, it deprives schools and other sponsors of the tools and flexibilities they need to recover from the impacts of the pandemic and resume normal operations.”

Supply chain disruption has improved, but there are still items that are hard to come by or have been dropped altogether due to the market, said Angelice Lowe, state director of child nutrition programs. .

“Many distributors are still struggling with labor shortages,” Lowe said.

Elaine Vaughn, director of the child nutrition program at Russellville City Schools, spends her summer buying whatever she can.

The system has a “Provision 2” status based on student socio-economic factors and will be able to feed all students in the next school year. Getting that food is Vaughn’s concern and why the waiver — which reimbursed schools at a higher rate — was important. Schools pay more for food and paper supplies and at the end of their waiver they will be reimbursed less.

“I’m stocking up on everything I can…I have to because I don’t know if I’ll be able to get it when school starts,” Vaughn said. Meanwhile, schools are struggling to staff their cafeterias.

“Our costs are astronomical right now,” Vaughn said.

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