School

The Impending School Lunch Disaster

A vegan meal served for lunch sits on a chair desk.
A vegan meal served for lunch sits on a chair desk at Yung Wing School in New York City on Feb. 4. Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

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There’s a vast, underappreciated supply chain that provides for your kids’ school lunches. This market has been set up to accommodate D.C., because the government has made a lot of rules for that program, which feeds more than 30 million kids. During the pandemic, school lunches became harder to pull off, so Congress cut schools a break at the beginning: A lot of the requirements about what school lunch had to look like were lifted, schools got more money to spend on food, and school lunch itself was made universally free for every kid, instead of costing $1.25 or more. But now, these measures are set to expire on June 30, thanks to Congress. Helena Bottemiller Evich, a senior food and agriculture reporter at Politico, says that school administrations are “really upset” about these lunch adjustments expiring, and everyone’s unsure of what to do next. On Tuesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Evich about what could happen should Congress allow these school lunch benefits to fall by the wayside. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Helena Bottemiller Evich: To be perfectly honest, I think the vast majority of parents have no idea this happened. There was so little press coverage of this that I almost can guarantee you this: Virtually all parents who have been using this program don’t know that it’s coming to an end this summer.

It’s an institution that I think we don’t think about a lot, but millions of children depend on it every day. For many kids, the most substantial food they get every day is at school. They might get breakfast and lunch, maybe even also a snack. Food insecurity is a significant problem in this country. Folks who haven’t eaten school meals or haven’t ever been in a family that was worried about paying rent or buying groceries, maybe they don’t fully get how crucial this is for many people. But the impact is quite broad.

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Mary Harris: Before the pandemic, I remember hearing all these stories about school lunch debt—kids who would owe a lot of money and maybe couldn’t get lunch because their parents couldn’t pay that off. It sounds like during the pandemic, that whole thing just went away.

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It did go away. We used to read gut-wrenching stories about kids who were essentially racking up debt at school. You would hear these stories of some schools that would do these horrible things like just give kids peanut butter on bread or something because their family owed money to the school, so they couldn’t get the regular meal.

Describe to me exactly what happened in March of 2020. How quickly did things change and how?

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So when the first round of shutdowns happened during the pandemic, the vast majority of schools all of a sudden went online. Kids were at home. For the millions who were relying on school meals, this immediately raised a question: What are we going to do to keep them fed, to make sure these kids have access to food? The U.S. Department of Agriculture recognized pretty quickly that there was a need to grant flexibility so that schools could pack up meals to go and parents could come pick them up. Schools could pack up a week of meals at a time so parents didn’t have to come every day. They also loosened the rules on what types of food schools could serve.

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It sounds like USDA kind of opened up the wallet and said, Do what you need to do to keep kids fed. I wonder if you ever thought an investment of this kind was something you would see.

Before the pandemic, there started to be a little bit of momentum around the idea that schools might one day have universal free meals, but it seemed like this far-off possibility. Then the pandemic happened and schools got to experience what it was like. Now, I have yet to talk to a school leader who wouldn’t want to keep it this way.

Do we know what kind of a difference it made for students to have access without question to meals through school?

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I don’t know if we know yet. But we did see this: We basically doubled SNAP spending during the pandemic, increased the benefits to try to make sure families weren’t missing out on the support that they were used to. The easiest way to do that to give it to all children in certain places where they were having school closures. So with all of this together, one of the things we learned is that food insecurity didn’t go up during the pandemic, which is pretty surprising because of how much economic disruption we had. It’s a pretty remarkable data point to learn during a pandemic: If you massively ramp up aid, a country can blunt a spike in food insecurity.

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Supply chain shortages and resignations made getting food in school kids’ bellies a lot harder over the past year. Over the past few weeks, stories have started cropping up about school districts that can’t even get ahold of basic staples. For school nutrition experts, this means that now is not the time to scale back support. But Washington reduced it anyway. When did you realize that this system of waivers that had made school lunch easier to provide might not survive?

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In the final days of negotiations over the big spending bills that keep government funded through the rest of the fiscal year, I started getting calls from sources on the Hill essentially saying, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has really dug in against extending the waivers. There was a lot of shock, and it was unexpected. I think it was maybe another day or two before the final deal was struck, and indeed, the waiver extension was not in there.

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It just so happened that the School Nutrition Association—which represents more than 50,000 school nutrition front-line workers and nutrition directors—was in town, so it had a conference in D.C. There was a top USDA official that was scheduled to just talk to that group, and she said that as of right now, the waiver extensions are not in the bill, as a full disclosure to the to the group. There was an audible gasp in a room of several hundred people.

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We should lay out exactly what this would mean: that the schools get less money to move food.

Food costs way more. The supply chains are wracked. Labor costs more. The schools are struggling with staffing generally. Most immediately, in the summer, there are going to be a lot fewer sites across the country serving free meals for any students who need them. Instead of the government giving school meal programs more time to get back to normal, it’s asking them to meet a lot more red tape with fewer resources in a very short amount of time.

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Republicans’ main defense for cutting funding for the school meals program is that President Joe Biden never made a budget request asking for the money—but Biden did send his secretary of agriculture to the Hill to advocate for it. Democrats, meanwhile, have made some statements decrying the lack of funding for school meals, but they still agreed to sign on to a spending bill without it. It’s still possible that the waivers might get rescued from the congressional chopping block, but not likely.

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You’re not seeing lawmakers own the anti-school-lunch-funding stance publicly, which I think is interesting. I think there is a desire everyone has to try to get schools back to normal, but you’re hearing a really strong Republican push to not continue a lot of pandemic programs longer than they feel is necessary. I also think it is completely fair to ask how big of a priority this really is for Democrats, because it’s not something we see in political talking points right now. You don’t hear Majority Leader Chuck Schumer talking about this, and I don’t think we’ve seen anything from Biden. So I don’t know how far they’re willing to go or how much they’re really willing to fight over this, and as we’ve learned, there aren’t that many trains that leave the station now in Washington in terms of legislation. So it’s hard to see what the other options are here.

It’s a chaotic way of running things. There’s not a lot of certainty. And even now, with a decision having been made, there’s still uncertainty, right? Because there’s still some hope that maybe Congress will fix this in some other way. And I think the feeling from schools is that it’s an added stress at a time when they feel like they shouldn’t have added stress on their plate.

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