After a back-and-forth debate stretching between chambers, Congress voted to approve a bill making it easier for summer programs to offer students free meals and to increase the per-meal payment to school districts in the upcoming school year.
The bill is in response to the impending expiration of the 2020 waiver which allowed all students, regardless of income level, to receive free meals without having to apply, and paid school districts substantially more for each meal they served. The bill passed the House on Thursday by a vote of 376-42, was amended by the Senate and passed with amendments in the House on Friday.
The bill will extend waivers for programs that provide food for children during the summer and ease some of the challenges created by supply chain shortages. But the bill ends an allowance for all students to receive free meals, regardless of family income, and does not clearly address the renewal of a waiver allowing school districts to be reimbursed at a higher rate for all the meals they serve.
Congressman Joe Courtney, D-CT praised the bill as a benefit for the districts that allows them to provide meals for summer programs with greater flexibility, and because represents an increase in the reimbursement rates for meals during the school year.
“We’ve been pressing for months to extend this critical program, and the Keep Kids Fed Act is our last and best chance to preserve this relief before the June 30 expiration date. Eastern Connecticut has done a tremendous job of battling our way back from the pandemic, and while we continue to move forward and deal with today’s new challenges the Keep Kids Fed Act will help support our schools, our students, and their families. I was proud to vote to pass this bill on behalf of our eastern Connecticut schools,” Courtney said in a statement.
Shannon Yearwood, education manager at the Bureau of Health/Nutrition, Family Services and Adult Education Child Nutrition Programs for the Connecticut Department of Education, agreed that the bill would give the schools important flexibility to be able to serve meals during summer programs without a huge administrative burden.
But the current version of the bill also eliminates the universal free school lunches beginning in September, and returns to reimbursements based on family income.
Julie Pendleton, director of operations, facilities and finance in Old Saybrook Public Schools, said that during the pandemic the district was reimbursed about $2.62 for each breakfast meal and about $4.56 for each lunch meal. Before the pandemic, the meal reimbursements varied depending on whether a student received lunch free, reduced or had to pay full price. Free lunches were reimbursed at $3.42. Full-price lunches were reimbursed at 32 cents.
“It doesn’t even begin to cover the cost, or come close to subsidizing any part of the cost,” said Pendleton.
The bill increases the reimbursement rates for lunches and breakfast — by 40 cents and 15 cents, respectively — but is a reduction from the reimbursement rate the districts were receiving for meals under the pandemic waiver.
Yearwood said it is not clear whether the USDA would have the authority under the bill to create a waiver for the 2022-23 school year granting higher reimbursement rates.
Pendleton also pointed out that inflation is driving up the cost of groceries, making it even more expensive to produce the same meals.
“Much like the grocery store — beef, cheese, all of the main things that we would use,” said Pendleton. “The cost of milk is crazy … produce has skyrocketed. And we like to serve a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables, which is part of the program, but obviously we have to be careful on costs.”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, food prices in May 2022 increased 10 percent compared to the prior year. Meat and poultry increased 14 percent, dairy increased 12 percent and produce increased 8 percent.
Yearwood told CT Examiner that the Connecticut General Assembly set aside $30 million in coronavirus relief funds that the state could use to help students afford school meals. She said that the department was working on a program to distribute the so-called SMART funds (School Meals Assistance Revenue for Children) which would depend on the outcome of the federal legislation.
Pendleton said that despite the rising costs of food, the Old Saybrook Board of Education voted not to increase meal prices for the students in the 2022-23 school year. She said she believed the board did not want to put any more pressure on families and students whose grocery bills were already high. But Pendleton also pointed out that taxpayers would have to pay for the increases one way or another.
“Our program has always been self-sustaining. We have never had a budget line item for Old Saybrook’s food service,” she said. “We’ve been able to keep afloat by being very, very careful. But I think that’s going to get harder and harder.”