Opinion: Child nutrition waivers are critical

Child nutrition programs, including the Summer Nutrition Program, face a legislative deadline that could affect millions of children. Currently, the Secretary of Agriculture has the legal authority to “waiver” many of the rules in the USDA’s baby nutrition programs, making it easier to feed children during the coronavirus. The authority expires on June 30 this year and needs to be extended. It is an urgent issue for the millions of students who depend on school feeding programmes

The minister used his authority to issue 14 nationwide exemptions that allowed schools to operate more flexible meal programs and provide free meals to all students. The US Department of Agriculture just announced Increase funding to support school meals and to help continue providing healthy meals to children through the end of the current school year.

With the Secretary of State’s authority ending in June this year, that means the Summer Feeding Program currently has one set of rules for June and a different set of rules for July and August. In July and August, programs must have group meal sites. In June, this is not required. Many summer program sponsors are even hesitant to start a summer program without fixed rules.

An array of organizations and private sector companies are sounding the alarm in Congress, the US Department of Agriculture and the White House. They are urging Congress to extend the secretary’s waiver power as part of a pending blanket appropriations bill that gives the secretary the ability to resolve concerns about summer food programs, as well as the challenges of the upcoming school year. The current ongoing decision on government funding expires on February 18y. A comprehensive appropriations law for government financing is expected to be enacted from February 19 until the end of the fiscal year.

When Congress set the deadline for the waiver of June 30, 2022, there was a common belief that the Covid pandemic would be behind us by the end of this school year. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Currently, schools are still struggling with Covid and literally thousands of schools have closed again. Mothers are (mostly) again being forced to quit their jobs to stay at home and take children out of school. And as much as we would all like to get back to “normal,” it won’t happen by fall. Supply chain issues and other issues mean we need to extend the waivers so we can have the time needed to get back to “normal”.

Schools are starting to plan their menus and order food for the new school year now. But at the moment they don’t know if they will be able to continue with the higher reimbursement rates touted in the USDA announcement: “At the start of the 2021-2022 school year, the SFSP food reimbursement rate for participating schools was already 15% higher. Standard reimbursement for free lunch. Now, because of rising food costs and other conditions, schools will get an extra 25 cents per lunch. Combined, schools are getting 22% more school lunches than they would under normal circumstances.” School meal costs are not likely to go down, but unless the waivers are extended the reimbursements will go down. How do they make a difference? Supply chain problems continue to affect school food authorities. Unless they consistently compromise flexibility in meal patterns, how can schools meet the standards if adequate, affordable supplies are not available?

This legislative barrier is expected to affect 30 million children on the lunch program this fall and up to ten million children this summer. There are 15 million in the school breakfast program. While it would be a good idea to address this issue as part of a comprehensive baby feeding permit, this is not realistic. An extension of the Secretary’s waiver authority should be submitted as quickly as possible, meaning as part of the Omnibus.

Organizations that participate in this effort include the Food and Action Research Center (FRAC), Feeding America, Bread for the World, the American Commodity Distribution Association, the National Education Association, the National PTA, the School Feeding Association, and the Urban Center. School Food Alliance. It also includes other groups you may not know as operators of these programs, especially the summer program, such as the After School Alliance, the National Parks and Recreation Association, Sharing Our Strength, and the YMCA. The American Heart Association, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Children’s Defense Fund, Moms Rising, and National Farm to School are active supporters of these efforts.

They have been joined by private sector companies that continue to provide high-quality foods to the nation’s children. The private sector includes both agricultural organizations and food manufacturers selling child nutrition programmes.

Secretary Vilsack and the Biden administration have made feeding the children a top priority, but they cannot act unless Congress extends their waiver authority. As the minister recently noted, “USDA understands that balancing the stresses of the pandemic with the need to feed children healthy, nutritious meals remains a priority for schools across the country.” Extending the waivers gives the secretary the extra authority he needs to meet the needs of the children.

Marshall Matz and Roger Simrag are partners at OFW Law in Washington, DC

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