Federal Child Nutrition Waivers That Helped Feed Thousands of Local Children Expires June 30 | Local News

Last summer, the Fredericksburg Regional Food Bank served 32,000 meals to area children.

That’s more than three times as many meals as those served in the summer of 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Carey Sealy, director of programs at the regional food bank, said the exponential growth was made possible by waivers put in place by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Services in the wake of the pandemic. .

Waivers allow schools and summer feeding programs greater flexibility in planning and distributing meals. They allow schools to feed all children for free, regardless of income, and have removed much of the bureaucracy that can prevent families from accessing school meals.

These waivers are due to expire on June 30.

Last month, Congress passed a $1.5 trillion omnibus spending bill that did not include authority to extend waivers beyond June, and the sudden end brought local programs to school nutrition and summer food to wonder how they will continue to provide meals.

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“I know not everyone will understand, but at the same time, it’s really important that every child has the ability to have nutritious food,” Sealy said.

Nutrition waivers for children were introduced in March 2020 as part of the first COVID-19 relief package.

Last summer, the food bank used waivers allowing non-collective – or “take-out” – meal service, allowing meals to be served outside traditional hours and allowing parents and guardians to take meals on behalf of their children to expand the reach and impact of its summer feeding program.

Under the pre-pandemic model, parents were required to bring children to a group site within a certain time frame to sit down and eat the meal.

Sealy said the changes allowed by the waivers have made it easier for working parents to participate.

“I feel like grab-and-go and pick-up are so much more convenient and there’s a lot less stigma,” she said. “[Under the old model] you ask parents to do a lot to make sure their child eats breakfast when you bring them to a site, sit down with them to eat, and then bring them home.

Without the waivers, Sealy said three summer feeding sites will have to close and there could be up to a 42% drop in attendance.

The Salem Church Library site, which Sealy says has been a “proven feeding site” for many years, is set to close because it no longer has the pool of volunteers to operate a group meal site .

“You need volunteers to see the kids, count the meals, keep the kids busy, plan and lead the activities – you need a big pool of volunteers,” Sealy said.

The child nutrition waivers also suspend the zone’s eligibility requirement — that sites that provide free lunches must be located in school districts where at least 50% of the population is eligible for a free lunch — and the income eligibility requirement.

Two other food bank summer feeding sites — the YMCA of Caroline County and Eastland United Methodist Church in Spotsylvania County — would have to close without those waivers, Sealy said.

Local school divisions have used the waivers, in particular the waiver allowing the Seamless summer option during the school year – to provide free breakfast and lunch to all children since spring 2020.

“Not only do we feed everyone for free, but we get reimbursed for everything,” said Caroline Public Schools Nutrition Supervisor Keith Conner. “Below [the Seamless Summer Option]we are reimbursed 100% for every meal we serve at the higher summer feeding program rate which is generally used for non-school entities. »

Conner said the higher reimbursement rate helped counter the effect of inflation and supply chain disruptions.

“Some supplies have doubled in cost,” he said. “There have been dramatic increases in food prices, sometimes increases of 25%. So that extra funding has gone a long way.

Another of the national waivers set to expire allows flexibility in USDA nutrient requirements for whole grains and unflavored milk.

Conner said that due to supply chain disruptions, products that meet these requirements are often unavailable.

“We are still dealing with [disruption] in almost every order,” he said. “Sometimes 10-20% of the order is not in stock. The waivers gave us the flexibility to bring in similar products of similar quality.

“On July 1, from what we understand, those flexibilities disappeared,” Conner continued. “It will create challenges. It’s a shame they decided that magically on July 1st, [supply chain disruptions] are going to disappear, because we know that we are going to deal with these problems for months, even a year.

Brian Kiernan, director of public school food services for the city of Fredericksburg, said failure to extend the waiver allowing non-collective meal service will significantly affect its ability to serve summer meals to city children. .

This summer, Kiernan said, FCPS will have four mobile food trucks ready to hit the city’s roads every day. Of the 35-40 stops on the truck routes, at least half are apartment complexes and only a small handful have a centralized, sheltered area where children can sit down to eat.

If the derogation authorizing the non-collective meal service is not renewed, the trucks will only be able to stop at a few places.

“The reality is that our kids get off the truck, get a meal, and go back to their apartments to eat it,” Kiernan said. “Often the parents are not at home. So what do we do [if the waiver is not renewed]? We have four trucks ready to go out each day, but now we go out and there will be children we cannot feed because there is no central place to eat.

“We designed our mobile program because kids can’t get to these centralized places to eat,” Kiernan continued. “It stabs our mobile program directly in the back.”

Earlier this year, U.S. Representative Abigail Spanberger, D-7th District, introduced a bill which she co-sponsors with one Democratic representative and two Republican representatives. The Keeping School Meals Flexible Act would extend the USDA’s authority to renew child nutrition waivers through June 30, 2023.

Extending the waivers would cost about $11 billion, Spanberger’s office estimated.

In an April 12 discussion with school and community lunch providers sponsored by No Kid Hungry Virginia, Spanberger said feeding children is “not a partisan issue.”

“These waivers are vital for schools in Virginia,” she said. “At the start of the pandemic, Congress reacted quickly. Two years later, we are in a different place, but still in a contested position, and new challenges still require these waivers. How can we ensure that school nutrition staff are able to fulfill their duties and responsibilities? »

Spanberger said 52 senators had expressed support for a similar bill introduced by Michigan Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow.

Adele Uphaus-Conner: 540/735-1973

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@flsadele

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