Expiring USDA Nutrition Waivers May Jeopardize Free Summer Meal Programs

Key Takeaways

  • The USDA child nutrition COVID-19 waivers are set to expire on June 30.
  • These waivers have allowed schools and summer programs to offer free meal pick-ups and deliveries to students.
  • If the waivers are not extended, these meal programs will have to scale down their operations significantly, leaving food-insecure families vulnerable.

Millions of U.S. students rely on summer meal programs when school isn’t in session. Early in the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued COVID-19 nutrition waivers for schools to address operational challenges and improve meal access.

Thanks to the waivers, some schools and summer programs were able to offer meals for pick-up to support social distancing. School meals were also reimbursed at a higher rate in response to supply chain disruptions and rising food costs.

But these waivers are set to expire on June 30, and waiver extensions were excluded from the Biden administration’s $1.5 trillion spending bill.

“These waivers are key to allowing program operators the flexibility they need to best get meals to children. When the waivers expire, we will lose these flexibilities and will need to return to pre-COVID program design,” Laura O’Carroll, public policy manager with the Greater Chicago Food Depository, told Verywell in an email.

Nonprofit organizations like The Greater Chicago Food Depository rely partially on USDA reimbursements to fund their summer meal programs.

Nutrition waivers have allowed initiatives like The Lunch Bus to bring food directly to underserved Chicago neighborhoods. A mobile food pantry operating under The Greater Chicago Food Depository, the bus delivers free meals to children and teenagers in communities that are at risk of food insecurity.

“If the waivers are not renewed beyond June 30, 2022, each child will go back to receiving one meal and must pick up the meal in-person,” Dominique Gardner, manager of youth food programs at The Greater Chicago Food Depository told Verywell in an email.

Since the start of the pandemic, the waivers have allowed parents and guardians to pick up multiple meals at a time to bring home for their kids. Garner said this flexibility helped the Lunch Bus distribute more than 43,000 meals in the summer of 2021, compared to the 12,900 meals delivered in 2019.

While the Lunch Bus will continue to provide USDA-reimbursed meals even without the waivers, the logistical barriers may prevent some families from receiving enough food this summer.

How Meal Pattern Waivers Helped the Lunch Bus

In addition to grab-and-go offerings, one of the COVID-19 waivers offered more flexibility on the menu.

Before the pandemic, meal programs only received reimbursements if their menus followed specific USDA guidelines. When it became harder for providers to source whole grains and low-sodium options, meal pattern waivers allowed the program to offer other healthy alternatives.

Lunch Bus recipients can select from two separate meal options—a cold lunch or a shelf-stable option—that both meet the USDA guidelines.

Gardner explained that the meal pattern waivers allowed The Lunch Bus to continue serving healthy food even when vendors couldn’t source certain ingredients due to supply chain shortages.

“The Food Depository believes that no one in our community should go hungry. Children especially need consistent, nutritious meals to grow and thrive,” Gardner said.

Expiring Waivers Could Increase the School Meal Prices

The Lunch Bus is only one of the many programs that will be impacted by expiring waivers. Providers across the country are preparing for changes to their nutrition budgets and distribution plans.

Some politicians and non-profit groups are still pushing for these waivers to be extended. But since an extension hasn’t been authorized, some schools have already started announcing plans to raise meal costs for the upcoming school year.

Uncertainties around the nutrition waivers have only added to the challenges already presented by staffing shortages, supply chain disruptions, and increasing food costs.

“We all want to put the pandemic behind us, but what school meal programs face is nowhere close to normal,”  Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association, said in a press release.

The changes would especially be felt by the low-income families who rely on these meals.

The pandemic waivers allowed schools to provide free meals to every student. If these expire, many students will have to start paying for school meals again. A 2021 report found that 1.5 million students already cannot afford school lunches. Many of these students fall in the difficult category of having too high of a household income to be eligible for free or reduced lunch while still not being able to afford the price of cafeteria food.

Parents and school meal providers will be watching to see if Congress takes any action before the June 30 deadline.

“Congress’ failure to act will undoubtedly cause students to go hungry and leave school meal programs in financial peril,” Pratt-Heavner said.

What This Means For You

If you want to find a summer meal program in your community, search for a local food bank on Feeding America. Even if the location seems far away, you can check if they work with smaller organizations that service your area.