The spat has been taking place behind the scenes in recent weeks as lawmakers try to cobble together a deal to avoid a federal shutdown, which is expected to happen after midnight Friday unless Congress acts. The tense process has sparked tough debates over which programs passed earlier in the pandemic — and how much, if any, they should be funded more.
The Biden administration had urged lawmakers to expand an initiative first enacted in 2020 that gave the Department of Agriculture the power to issue nutritional waivers for children nationwide. These waivers have allowed school nutrition programs, local government agencies and nonprofits to continue feeding children despite numerous challenges, including school closures that have forced students to learn remotely.
But the Biden administration’s request — backed by congressional Democrats — met resistance on Capitol Hill, according to four people familiar with the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the private discussions. Among the Republican opponents was Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), according to the individuals.
One of the people, an aide to the Republican Senate leadership, explained that the program was designed as a temporary solution – and its extension would have cost more than $11 billion at a time when the party is worried about the increasing deficits. The aide pointed out that schools are reopening anyway and faulted the Biden administration for not extending school lunch programs as part of the roughly $1.9 trillion stimulus package Democrats have supported last year.
The aide also said the administration did not include a request to extend those waivers when it asked Congress to approve more than $20 billion in new coronavirus emergency funding last week. . But USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack disputed that in an interview with The Washington Post and said he had been working on the phones for the program all weekend.
“This weekend I asked to speak to Chief McConnell and Chief McCarthy. Now I realize that they have a lot to do. But Republicans’ inability to respond to that means kids are going to have less on their plates,” Vilsack said. “And there is no reason for that. There is no reason for that.
Several people have warned that talks around a bipartisan funding deal are still unresolved, meaning the discussion could still change. Lawmakers aim to finalize work on the bill as soon as Tuesday so the House and Senate can vote on the broader spending package imminently.
However, without an extension of waivers, schools are expected to see a dramatic reduction in reimbursements for school meals over the next school year. The USDA estimates a decrease in school lunch funding of over 40% for an average school district. The average reimbursement a school gets for a meal served will drop from $4.56 to about $2.91. And it will happen as schools continue to face higher costs for food, labor and supplies.
Schools could also lose critical flexibility in their operation, which has allowed them to adapt the rules of traditional curricula to deal with the pandemic and labor shortages, advocates of those programs say. This includes flexibilities to provide in-class meals or take-out meals for children who have to miss school during quarantines.
Schools could lose the ability to substitute food for needs when they can’t get what they ordered due to unexpected supply chain disruptions, advocates say. Finally, without waivers, schools could face financial penalties if they fail to meet federal requirements due to supply chain issues, and through no fault of their own. For example, if they can’t serve a variety of vegetables or get whole-grain-rich products that meet federal standards, states will be required to penalize districts.
“Ninety percent of schools use waivers and only 75% of them break even,” said Stacy Dean, USDA Deputy Assistant Secretary. “If your income is too low for your costs, you either have to go elsewhere for your income or cut your costs, which could mean lower quality food, layoffs or cutback programs like snacks and breakfast. after school, which has a particular impact on low-income students.
School nutrition advocates are angry. Although covid cases have declined and unemployment in this country continues to fall, the loss of these waivers will be cataclysmic for needy schools and students in a situation that continues to be far from normal, said Kelly Orton , principal of the Salt Lake City School District. . He points out the shortcomings he currently observes.
“We had problems getting milk. The carton makers couldn’t make them for us, and sporadically we didn’t have drivers to transport the milk,” he said. “We haven’t had any milk since last Tuesday. It hasn’t been delivered all week, and it’s a vital item that we’re supposed to supply. It’s the new normal.”
Additionally, school districts across the country are struggling to find enough workers, Orton said, but increased funding during the pandemic has allowed districts to pay higher wages to compete in a tight job market.
“At the Utah chain stores, the new starting salary is $15. We had paid $13.50 in our plan, and we just got $15 approved in February so we could be competitive. current funding has allowed us to do that. The fear is that when those waivers go away and the money goes away, there’s no way to fund those higher salaries,” he said.
Many pandemic-era safety net programs have a gradual return to normal, Dean said. By removing these waivers on June 30, schools will not have enough funds for summer programs and for the next school year. Dean said other safety net programs that have been bolstered by the pandemic during the crisis, such as Medicaid health insurance and SNAP (the supplemental nutrition program formerly called food stamps), have had more time to come back. to tighter funding.
“We are concerned that a hard pivot on June 30 could jeopardize a smooth return to normal. What we want is an exit ramp to give schools time to get back to business as usual,” Dean said.
Losing those waivers also means significant logistical challenges for school administrators as they have to charge students again and track eligibility, said Katie Wilson, executive director of the nonprofit Urban School Food Alliance. profit created by school catering professionals.
“Families haven’t filled out free and reduced-price meal forms for the past two years. It will literally be impossible to get that information before the end of June,” Wilson said. “It will take a lot of communication and education for families to understand why this is changing while they are still underwater from the pandemic. School nutrition programs are taking over all of this, and it will only get worse when they have to find a way to charge parents again.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said that with 90% of American schools open and children back in classrooms, it is unfortunate that, rather than to use the bipartisan tools at their disposal to provide meals to students, Republican congressional leaders “said no and decided they’d rather let our kids go hungry.” It’s a shame.