School meal programs continue to face shortages. Costs may also continue to rise.

School meal programs have faced many challenges this year. Staples like chicken, pizza, and muffins are hard to come by. Food deliveries often arrive late, if at all. There is still a shortage of cooks and drivers. Inflation pushes costs up.

Now schools may face another test: the end of federal waivers that have lowered meal costs and made it easier to serve food to students during the pandemic. Their omission from the latest federal budget agreement has school bracing for costs to rise next year and scramble to plan their summer meal plans.

“School nutrition directors are really worried about what’s going to happen next, summer feeding sponsors are really worried about how they’re going to run their programs,” said Crystal FitzSimons, director of school programs at Food Research. & Action Center nonprofit. “We think it’s going to be a crisis.”

Early in the pandemic, federal authorities issued several waivers that allowed schools to serve meals in ways they generally could not under federal rules. These allowances, extended throughout this school yearallowed schools to continue to do things like distribute take-out meals when students had to quarantine or temporarily return to virtual learning, and serve meals in classrooms to allow for greater social distancing .

These arrangements may be less necessary now, as cases drop and schools resume more normal operations. But the waivers also meant schools got more money back per meal than they typically would during the school year. This helped offset rising food prices and higher wages for cafeteria workers and delivery drivers that many schools were offering to stay competitive in a tight labor market — pressures numerous schools are always facing.

When the waivers expire, schools will receive an average of $1.65 less per meal, a drop of 36%, according to a federal estimate.

Nearly 90% of school lunch programs responding to a fall survey said they relied on the waiver that increases reimbursement costs this school year, According to a report from the Ministry of Agriculture released earlier this month. Programs using the waiver were less likely to run their school meals program with financial loss.

The waivers also allowed any student to eat meals at no cost to them, removing paperwork requirements for schools and helping families whose incomes suddenly changed during the pandemic.

Advocates like FitzSimons say these provisions have “had a huge impact on ensuring children are in the classroom, fed and ready to learn.”

Waivers are due to expire at the end of June, and the Biden administration and congressional Democrats had pushed to expand those provisions in the latest federal budget deal. But waiver extensions weren’t in the House package passed Wednesday. The Senate is should approve this legislation from this weekend.

Key Republican lawmakers have opposed continuing school lunch waivers in part because of the added costs, the Washington Post reported. This higher reimbursement rate will likely cost the federal government some $8 billion this school year, an Agriculture Department estimate from January found. Lawmakers saw the waivers as a temporary fix that was no longer needed.

Many schools expect to face higher school lunch program costs, food supply issues and labor shortages throughout the summer and school year next, however, the recent federal report revealed.

When waivers expire, schools will also again face financial penalties if they cannot meet the usual national nutrition standards, which can happen. when schools need to substitute foods if an order is canceled or arrives without certain ingredients. Nearly nine in 10 school food programs that responded to the federal survey this fall said they made such substitutions.

“Schools want to invest more in students to address learning loss and all sorts of other needs,” said Carolyn Vega, associate director of policy at Share Our Strength, a nonprofit organization that fights against child hunger. “So it would be really terrible for them to have to also try to use that money for school meals when there was another way to offset those higher costs.”

Proponents say expiring waivers could also have more fallout. If another wave or variant of COVID occurs later this year, schools would not have the ability to offer take-out meals or make meal deliveries to students at home if they must quarantine or learn virtually.

And advocates fear that ending waivers will make it harder to serve food to children during the summer, which is typically a tough time to reach families.

While summer meal programs generally have to be set up in areas where many students from low-income families live, pandemic-era waivers have allowed summer meal programs to take place in more places, such as malls or community centers that are more centrally located but have lower levels of poverty in the surrounding area.

Uncertainty over extended waivers, FitzSimons said, has complicated efforts to hire summer staff, choose locations and decide how many meals to serve.

Schools had hoped to prepare for more typical meal operations this summer and fall, Vega said, but they have faces many obstacles.

“This school year ended up being much more difficult than anyone ever imagined, between supply chain issues and issues related to the ongoing pandemic with the delta wave and then the omicron,” said- she declared. “We didn’t have the time and the space to think about all these things and start this transition process.”

Kalyn Belsha is a national journalist based in Chicago. Contact her at [email protected]

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