As universal school meals program nears end, Biden eyes other ways to get food to school kids

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Biden officials are working on a smaller effort to help schools buy select food products as the universal free school meals program it launched during the Covid-19 pandemic approaches its expiration date, according to two people familiar with the plans.

Administration officials are exploring using about $1 billion from an Agriculture Department fund to help schools purchase U.S. commodities for their meal programs. USDA did something similar last December, as districts struggled to find consistent sources of food amid ongoing supply chain disruptions from the pandemic.

A USDA official not authorized to speak publicly on the matter confirmed the department intends to deploy the funds later this month, but final arrangements are still underway.

“USDA is looking at every tool at its disposal to ease the burden the pandemic has caused on school districts, but the magnitude of this problem requires Congressional action,” a department spokesperson said in a statement. “School districts and American families need relief and Congress can provide that relief.”

Biden officials are scrambling to come up with even a small amount of money for school meals, after Congress failed to extend the current school meal waivers universal it approved in the early months of Covid-19. Those waivers not only enabled schools to provide free meals to every student, regardless of income, which cut down on paperwork, but they allowed schools officials to buy any available food for school meals, regardless of federal nutrition requirements and without financial penalty. The waivers, however, expire on June 30. And administration officials acknowledge the impact will be huge, even if they release an additional $1 billion or so in funds to buy more food.

School meal funding, like other government assistance offered during the pandemic, has been at the center of a political battle between Democrats and Republicans. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and most Republicans in Congress oppose any move to extend the funding, citing the significant cost — roughly $11 billion. Democrats and the White House were caught flat-footed by their opposition this spring, and have been scrambling in the months since to find an alternative before the expiration date.

A group of senators, led by Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), are still hoping to reach an agreement to fund a full extension of the waivers. Stabenow again pushed for an extension on the Senate floor Wednesday, but lamented that only two Republicans currently support such a move — Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine. Stabenow is, however, talking with Republican Sen. John Boozman (Ark.), the top Republican on the Agriculture Committee, to try to reach some agreement, according to two people.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack also personally pressed McConnell and other Republican Senators during a hearing late last month to reconsider their opposition to the extension.

When McConnell argued that the Biden administration was to blame for families struggling under high inflation, Vilsack replied, “It’s why we asked for a continuation for one more year of universal free school meals.”

Vilsack told reporters after the hearing that he had spoken about the waivers with Boozman and Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota, but the effort to extend the funding “didn't work out because [congressional] leaders made a decision not to allow it to work out.” He said he was still “hopeful” Congress extends the waivers, but he promised USDA would seek out alternatives, even if they couldn't fund a full fix.

Once the pandemic-era waivers end, schools will be financially penalized if they don’t serve the right meal options or meet specific nutrition requirements, said Jillien Meier, director of partnerships and campaign strategies at the anti-hunger group No Kid Hungry. The waivers give schools the ability to substitute whatever foods they can find as they grapple with severe supply chain issues for school food supplies and steep consumer costs.

Anti-hunger advocates argue the waivers held off the worst of the expected rise in food insecurity during the pandemic. And they warn that the loss of the funding beginning in July will abruptly increase hunger for millions of Americans that had relied on the program. Some food vendors have already begun canceling school orders before the waivers expire, partially because of high food costs.

“We expected childhood food insecurity to skyrocket throughout the pandemic, but It stayed largely unchanged,” said Meier. “We fully attribute that to the school meal waivers.”

“Now we’re just going to undo all of that,” Meier said.

Republicans disagree with the way the Biden administration has used emergency pandemic authorities to increase federal nutrition programs.

“This is another example of my colleagues trying to take an emergency pandemic — the exemptions — and turn them into permanent changes that last forever,” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said in March.

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