Schools around the country are scrambling to continue feeding America's children. Today, they’re breathing a sigh of relief—but only for a moment.
Child nutrition waivers passed by Congress in early 2020 in response to COVID-19 made all students eligible for meals at no charge and provided schools with higher reimbursements and more flexibility in how meals are served to fill urgent needs. The waivers were scheduled to expire this June 30, and the consequences of doing nothing would have been severe. Although the vast majority of schools have returned to in-person learning, they continue to grapple with staff shortages, rising costs and supply chain disruptions, which is why more than 90% of school food authorities relied on the waivers during the 2021-22 school year to keep afloat. Allowing the waivers to expire now would have cut off millions of children from school meals that provide many children with nearly half of their daily calories and are a consistent source of good nutrition—at a time when more than 23 million families in the United States are experiencing food insecurity, the highest total in more than a year.
As leaders of two nonprofit organizations committed to healthy school meals as integral to children’s learning, long-term development and overall well-being, we are pleased that Congress stepped up to head off an impending calamity. The "Keep Kids Fed Act," passed this week in an overwhelmingly bipartisan fashion, ensures that all kids continue to be eligible for meals at no cost through summer. It will also help schools by providing higher reimbursement rates through the 2022-23 school year.
This is meaningful progress, but it must be considered a first step, not a final one. The waivers have been among the most notable policy successes of the past 2+ years—a great example of Congress coming together to meet the needs of America’s families. An additional 10 million children have had access to healthy meals at no charge. Schools using the waivers were less likely to operate at a deficit this school year. Thanks to increased flexibility, summer meals programs—which typically struggle with low participation—served more than 4 billion meals during the summers of 2020 and 2021, nearly equal to the total summer meal output between 1982 and 2019. These outcomes build on previous research finding that serving healthy school meals to all students at no charge can reduce rates of food insecurity, improve children’s diets and academic performance, and provide more revenue for schools.
This record of success offers compelling reasons for extending the child nutrition waivers through the 2022-23 school year. Indeed, while this bill helps our nation avoid the worst outcomes in the near-term, it is far from perfect. Parents and guardians will once again have to apply for free or reduced-price meals when the summer ends—a cumbersome process that does not reach every child in need—while schools will have to devote limited resources to verifying eligibility. This will mean that some children will be forced again to stand in a different line or receive a different meal from their peers, which may invite stigma and shame. The burden of school meal debt will return.
We can and must do better. Our children deserve better.
The waivers offer a compelling roadmap for long-term improvement of vital school meal programs. Notwithstanding the enactment of the Keep Kids Fed Act, more help is needed—millions of households are struggling to put food on the table and schools are pleading for additional assistance. State officials nationwide should follow the lead of California, Maine and Vermont by enacting laws to provide school meals to all students at no charge through at least the 2022-23 school year. We encourage Congress to expand the Community Eligibility Provision, which for the past several years has allowed schools with at least 40% of students living in poverty to serve meals to all students at no charge. Federal policymakers should build on science-based standards to ensure school meals deliver the nutrition all children need to thrive. And we hope the White House’s upcoming Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health will inspire national action to address the systemic inequities in nutrition policy that have plagued this nation for generations.
By any objective measure, ending the federal child nutrition waivers now would have been a terrible mistake. We applaud this bipartisan action by Congress. However, the reprieve that has just been granted, while real, is only temporary. For the sake of our nation’s children, we need lawmakers to follow the facts, listen to their conscience and use this additional time wisely to finish the job.
Richard E. Besser, a pediatrician, is the president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and former acting director of the CDC. Nancy Brown is the CEO of the American Heart Association. The opinions in this story are not those of ABC News.