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Free school meals for all are set to end. What's next?

Supply chain issues and inflation aren't over. But a federal program that fed millions of kids for two years nearly is.

WASHINGTON — Without action from Congress, a federal waiver that helps feed millions of schoolkids is coming to an end on June 30. While there's movement toward extending parts of the program, at least for this summer, some aspects won't continue for long. 

The program began in March 2020 when Congress authorized the U.S. Department of Agriculture to issue a set of waivers for school nutrition programs. One of the waivers allowed any kid to eat school meals for free -- but experts say that's only the beginning. 

"There are so many other waivers that are actually critical to keeping school meal programs running and food in front of these kids," said Jillien Meier, director of No Kid Hungry partnerships and campaign strategy. "And when those waivers expire, the real risk is that there's going to be a hunger crisis."

The USDA pressed for the waiver program to be included in the omnibus spending bill passed by Congress, but it was left out.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers on Tuesday announced a bill that would extend the waivers. But with only days left to go, Meier says time is of the essence. 

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What do the waivers do?

Under the typical rules, a student could only receive free school meals if their family's income was at or below 130% of the federal poverty line. In most states, that would be just under $30,000 for a household of three.

Reduced-price meals had a similar qualifier: 130-185% of the federal poverty line. 

The waiver also removed another roadblock -- paperwork, which Meier said is complex enough that she's had trouble finding the forms involved. 

"So if someone who does this for a living can't figure out these applications, how is someone who is holding two or three jobs, working all hours of the day, maybe without even internet in their house, how are they supposed to find that?" she asked. Another concern is stigma for the kids at the center of the process. 

About 30 million schoolchildren ate no-cost meals this past school year, says USDA Food and Nutrition Service administrator Cindy Long. 

"By comparison, before the pandemic, we would typically serve about 20 million kids for free," Long said. 

With the school year wrapped up, experts foresee the first struggles this summer. Schools and other organizations that run summer food programs will lose flexibility on where they can operate, reducing the number of sites where kids can pick up meals. A report by No Kid Hungry estimated that nearly 7 million kids could lose access to summer meals.

Lawmakers and hunger activists are also concerned about impacts for schools. If the waivers expire, schools will see lower reimbursement rates for the meals they serve, some substantially. 

Expiration of the waivers would also require schools to meet pre-pandemic nutrition requirements -- a tall order as schools deal with widespread supply chain issues. 

"As of right now, (schools) can't find the food to meet those meal patterns for some requirements," Meier said. "Next year is going to be even harder from what we're hearing."

What's next? 

The clock runs out on the free lunch waivers in less than a week, raising urgency for Congress. 

"We are living in a time where everyone's going from crisis to crisis ... the waivers didn't get the attention they needed," Meir said. "And, you know, call me an optimist. But there is still time to fix this for the next school year." 

A group of bipartisan lawmakers hopes to extend some of the waivers sooner. They introduced the "Keep Kids Fed Act" with the goal of getting it to President Joe Biden's desk in time to rescue the summer meal programs. 

If passed, the Keep Kids Fed Act would increase school food program's reimbursement rates for the upcoming school year -- an additional 40 cents for lunch and an additional 15 cents for breakfast. 

Most notably, the bill asks Congress to extend the waivers through the summer. 

However, the bill misses a key part of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act : lack of paperwork. Under the bipartisan Keep Kids Fed Act, parents would revert to pre-pandemic requirements to apply for the free school meals programs.

The House approved the plan Thursday, 376-42, but they'll need to re-vote on the measure Friday because changes were made in the Senate when it was brought up for a vote. 

According to NPR's Ximena Bustillo, the original House bill would've ensured students that qualified for reduced priced meals instead got free meals. But Senator Rand Paul got them to return to pre-pandemic meal categories, so schools will have paid, reduced and free lunches, Bustillo reported

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