Advocates urge Congress to expand pandemic relief that provides free school meals to children

Public health advocates are calling on Congress to expand a waiver program that was implemented at the start of the coronavirus pandemic to provide free meals to college students, including millions of children in Florida. Waivers are due to expire at the end of that school year.

The federal government has given schools more flexibility in how and where to deliver meals and increased reimbursement rates to cover more children and, in some cases, healthier food options.

If the waivers expire at the end of June, children could lose an important source of nutrition, according to Jamie Bussel, senior program manager at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

“Families are going to find it harder to get food and schools are going to continue to face pretty significant financial challenges,” she said.

According to the foundation, school food services suffered more than $2 billion in lost federal revenue between March and November 2020.

Advocates also point to a recent survey which found that 95% of school canteens are struggling with staffing shortages and 97% are facing rising costs due to supply chain issues.

Efforts to include an extension of the waiver program in an omnibus spending bill that President Biden signed last month have failed. A group of federal lawmakers has since introduced bipartisan legislation to extend the flexibilities through the fall of 2023.

Some Republican lawmakers argue the waivers are too costly and the pandemic is no longer disrupting daily life enough to warrant continued relief.

COVID-19 may be more manageable now, Bussel says, but the economic problems haven’t stopped.

“I think families in Florida, families across America are facing continual and vicious challenges from rising food prices, the loss of, you know, economic aid like expanding the child tax credit and free school meals for all,” she said.

States like California and Maine have made permanent the provision of free school meals to all students.

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