Free meal program to expire at the end of this school year
Child nutrition waivers that have allowed schools across the country to serve free meals to all K-12 students during the COVID-19 pandemic — also known as the Universal School Meals Program — will expire at the end of June, it has been reported.
The bipartisan omnibus appropriations bill signed on Friday, March 11 by U.S. President Joe Biden that reportedly averted a government shutdown did not include an extension of the special child nutrition waivers that have reportedly played a major role in keeping children fed during the pandemic.
House Resolution 2471 included $730 billion in non-defense spending, reportedly a 6.7-percent increase over fiscal year 2021, as well as $782 billion in defense spending. But opponents said the waivers would add another $11 billion to the spending and were not intended to be permanent.
School administrators and child nutrition experts across the country urged lawmakers to keep the federal waiver program alive, saying that not allowing the U.S. Department of Agriculture to extend the waivers would significantly damage schools’ ability to serve meals.
Among those expressing dismay at Congress’ failure to include an extension of the waiver program was USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, who noted that “kids are going to have less on their plates… There’s no reason for this.”
The waivers were first granted in March of 2020 in order to make sure that schools, local governing entities and non-profit organizations would still be able to offer free meals to children who found themselves staying home from school for the rest of the 2019-20 school year, at the onset of the pandemic.
Legislation had been introduced to make the waiver program permanent and posited that 30 million children in the country rely on free or reduced-price school lunches. Furthermore, proponents added, if the waivers expire, many students would no longer receive free school meals.
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