Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is calling on the Senate to protect and extend federal waivers for school meal programs that have prevented the country’s neediest families to from going hungry during the pandemic. The program is facing opposition from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is reportedly blocking the extension of the waivers.
“For many children, the harsh reality is that these meals are the only full meal they get to eat throughout the day, and it is unconscionable that we would let children go hungry, just as our communities are beginning to open up and rebound from the global pandemic,” said Sen. Gillibrand. “Senator McConnell should drop his callous opposition to this critical program, which feeds millions of children in communities across the country and will help us transition beyond COVID-19.”
In a letter, led by Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM). Senator Gillibrand and her colleagues are pushing to ensure that school administrators, staff, and industry partners that supply food to child nutrition programs have continued support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), preventing those most in need from losing pandemic waivers that provided child nutrition program flexibilities to cope with the impact of the pandemic. The letter requests that the upcoming omnibus spending bill include a provision to “continue to provide USDA authority to issue all necessary waivers, including an extension of all authority provided by FFCRA for state and nationwide waivers from June 30, 2022 to September 30, 2023.” The full-year spending package, which House Democrats plan to unveil soon, allows for the waivers to continue throughout the 2022-23 school year.
Sen. Gillibrand has been supportive of the federal food waivers since their inception, having helped Congress pass the Families First Coronavirus Response Act that granted USDA the authority to issue several nationwide waivers and flexibilities for schools and program operators, back in 2020, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sen. Gillibrand also supported the congressional extension of USDA’s initial authority to June 30, 2022, through the Continuing Appropriations Act 2021 and Other Extensions Act.
Full text of the letter is available HERE and below:
Dear Leader Schumer and Leader McConnell:
Since the onset of the pandemic, Congress has taken action to address the exceptional circumstances of the COVID-19 public health emergency, including by granting USDA authority in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) to issue several nationwide waivers and flexibilities for schools and program operators. We write to ask that the omnibus continue to provide USDA authority to issue all necessary waivers, including an extension of all authority provided by FFCRA for state and nationwide waivers from June 30, 2022 to September 30, 2023, in order to provide the flexibility needed to respond to the ongoing pandemic and to ensure that the federal child nutrition programs continue to operate and provide healthy snacks and meals to students.
Going forward, schools across the country will continue to need flexibility in providing school nutrition programs. That’s because school districts that continue to operate in-person face a slew of challenges that impact meal service such as workforce shortages, unpredictable and cancelled food deliveries, increased food prices, and the inability to source standard food items or products like trays and cutlery. It will take time for nutrition operations at schools to recover from the challenges created during the pandemic, to rebuild their programs, and overcome the significant financial impact.
We recognize schools will continue to have the option to serve free meals to all students through June 2022 via the Seamless Summer Option (SSO). However, it is clear that schools and suppliers are continuing to face ongoing operational and supply challenges as they work to transition back to normal operations. Given that over 29 million children receive low cost or free meals at school every day, extending the SSO and other waivers are critical to keeping our nation’s children fed1 this summer and during the 2022-2023 school year. This is especially true for states with high rates of poverty, where large portions of students are eligible for free and reduced lunch.
The June deadline means that summer meal programs will not be able to operate under the same program rules through the entire summer. This deadline also restricts the ability to respond to the operational and access challenges that schools may face into 2023. For schools that continue to face fluctuations in participation and staffing shortages, returning to normal National School Lunch Program (NSLP) rules on meal counting and eligibility would shortchange schools of adequate commodities and make both school and summer programs virtually impossible to run effectively. Further, schools will need support when they ultimately transition back to normal school meal operations under the National School Lunch Program. USDA will need waiver authority to support schools and program operators through this process and be able to effectively respond to unexpected challenges that may arise.
We believe extending the authority to issue state and nationwide waivers through September 30, 2023 will provide much needed assistance to school administrators, staff, and industry partners that supply food to child nutrition programs. Without these waivers, federal child nutrition programs will not be able to adequately meet the needs of children as we work to transition beyond COVID-19. The meals provided through the child nutrition programs are critical to our nation’s pandemic response to childhood hunger. Thank you for your consideration of this request.