USDA program allowed 33,000 schools nationwide to provide free student meals in 2021-22

Jun. 24—MASSENA — A program that's scheduled to end this month allowed 33,000 schools nationwide to provide free meals to students in 2021-22, according to a report released by the Food Research and Action Center, a national nonprofit working to eradicate poverty-related hunger and undernutrition in the United States.

The meals were made available through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's child nutrition waiver authority.

The waivers had originally been put in place toward the end of the 2019-20 school year. The authority was established through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, and was extended for fiscal year 2021 through the Continuing Appropriations Act 2021 and Other Extension Act. It was then extended again to June 30, 2022, through the Extending Government Funding and Delivering Emergency Assistance Act.

Usually, only low-income families are eligible and there are restrictions on where families can pick up food and how much they can take, but the USDA has waived these limits due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The waivers allow for meal distribution sites that serve all children for free, regardless of income. All youth 18 and younger can receive meals at no cost, even if they're not a student in their local school district.

As it stands, school districts would no longer be able to serve free meals to all students after June 30.

The FRAC report, "Community Eligibility: The Key to Hunger-Free Schools, School Year 2021-2022," found that 90% of school nutrition departments used the waiver to offer free breakfasts and lunches to all students during the 2021-22 school year. The waiver also provided a higher reimbursement rate for each meal that was served.

According to the report, 16.2 million students now attend schools that have adopted community eligibility. Schools that participate in community eligibility often see increased participation in school meals, decreased stigma around school meal participation, a reduction in administrative burdens and costs to schools, and bolstered school nutrition finances.

The report recommends increasing the number of schools that are able to adopt community eligibility by making more schools eligible; making it more financially viable by increasing the multiplier that determines the amount of federal reimbursement a school receives from 1.6 to 2.5; and giving states the option to implement the Community Eligibility Provision statewide to allow all schools in the state to offer breakfast and lunch to all students at no charge.

It's up to Congress to extend the waiver before the June 30 expiration.

"We continue to call on Congress to act immediately to extend USDA authority to issue child nutrition waivers beyond June 30 to give all children access to the school breakfasts and lunches they need to grow and thrive and to support schools as they face unprecedented supply chain disruptions and increased staffing costs," Luis Guardia, president of FRAC, said in a statement.

"If Congress fails to act and the waivers are not available for the 2022-2023 school year, community eligibility can help mitigate the impact of the loss of the waivers at least for high-need schools," he said.

Earlier this month, More than 80 New York state legislators, along with the Food Research and Action Center, urged the USDA to extend the program.

The legislators signed a letter from state Assemblywoman Jessica González-Rojas, D-East Elmhurst, and state Sen. Michelle Hinchey, D-Saugerties, calling on New York's congressional representatives to extend the USDA's nationwide waiver authority. The move would allow universal school meals through the 2022-23 school year and summer meals in the upcoming summer break.

Assemblywoman González-Rojas and Sen. Hinchey had advocated for the funding allocation in the New York state budget to cover the cost for a year, but it was not included in the state's final fiscal year 2023 budget.