Education

Food access advocates have been sounding the alarms for months, watching the original June 30 expiration date for the federal child nutrition waivers creep closer and closer. The pandemic-era program has allowed school districts to feed millions more needy children by increasing reimbursement rates, opening eligibility to more students and loosening rules about how meals have to be served.

Without an extension, advocates worried millions of children would go hungry.

With days left before the expiration date, Congress finally acted. On Friday both the House and Senate approved the Keep Kids Fed Act, which extends many of the waivers. But for some summer food programs, it may be too late.

“It’s really hard to pivot, at this point, successfully,” Leah Feagin told WFPL News. Feagin is nutrition director at Mayfield Independent Schools, in western Kentucky.

With no guarantee the waivers would be re-upped, Feagin was planning for a return to a traditional summer feeding program on July 1, with students eating each meal on site again. The expiration of the waivers would have meant an end to programs that allowed families to pick up days’ worth of meals and shelf-stable food, a new option that became a lifeline for families during the pandemic and when schools were closed for breaks, COVID-19 outbreaks or weather events.

Ideally Feagin would like to continue offering take-home meals. She’s already submitted an application for a new waiver. But, approval can take weeks as an application winds its way through both state and federal bureaucracy.

“I’m really hoping we can get immediate relief, but I’m just not certain that’s how it will work,” she said.

Other districts, even if they are approved quickly, may not be able to pivot. Supplies have been ordered for on-site meals, not take-home meals. And staffing and logistics already planned out.

“That’s why we were having these conversations months ago, because we couldn’t wait until the last hour,” Feagin said.

The result of Congress’ action coming just a week before the deadline is that districts and other program sponsors may feed far fewer students this summer than they could have if lawmakers had acted sooner.

“Many sponsors have made decisions and plans for summer operations which are currently underway and would be difficult logistically to change,” Kentucky Department of Education spokesperson Toni Konz Tatman wrote in an emailed statement.

Feagin said she’s hoping Congress’ next step is to make the rules about how meals are served permanent. The on-site eating requirement has long been a barrier to families if parents’ work schedules don’t allow them to transport their children daily to meal sites. Or for those who can’t afford to, or don’t have a car.

Making kids eat on site is “not realistic,” Feagin said. “It never has been.”

With less “red tape,” as Feagin called the rules, Mayfield Independent has been able to serve 10,000 additional meals during the summer months or when school was canceled due to weather or COVID-19 outbreaks.

“Now because of the pandemic, we can say, ‘Hey, we’ve shown how this can work,’” she said.

The deal lawmakers reached Friday extends the meal-site flexibilities through the next school year, but is overall less generous than previous waivers. It knocks the reimbursement rate per meal down, but still provides a higher rate than before the pandemic.

The measure also brings income-eligibility back in line with pre-pandemic guidelines, meaning fewer students will be allowed to have free meals. 

An earlier $3 billion version of the bill that passed the House of Representatives made it easier to qualify for free meals, with the threshold rising to accommodate families at up to 185% of the federal poverty level. That’s about $51,000 a year for a family of four.

However, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican, blocked that more generous measure in the Senate, and pushed for the return of the reduced-price category. The final legislation puts families between 130% and 185% of the federal poverty level on reduced-price meals, meaning they will have to start paying 40 cents per lunch and 30 cents per breakfast.

A family of four at 130% of the federal poverty level has an annual household income of about $36,000.

While infections, deaths and job losses from COVID-19 are receding, district leaders say the increased reimbursement rates have been especially helpful as they grapple with inflation.

“Challenges still exist including higher food and fuel costs,” KDE’s Konz Tatman said in an emailed statement.

Inflation is hardest on districts with fewer low-income students. The smaller a child nutrition program, the less overall funding it collects from the federal government, and the tighter the margins, Feagin said.

“I know a neighboring independent district that said to me, ‘I’m broke…we don’t have any money,’” Feagin said.

Districts like Mayfield, with a high percentage of students eligible for free meals, will be best able to weather a reduction in reimbursement rates. Unless that is, inflation continues at its current rate.

“Sometimes our costs tripled on certain items,” Feagin said. “So if we’re facing that again, this year … it would definitely take its toll.”

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.