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Advocates urge Congress to extend pandemic relief that provides free school meals to kids

Young girl carries tray of school lunch food in cafeteria.
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Advocates say free school meals are an important source of nutrition for kids.

Advocates say families in Florida and across the nation are already struggling with rising food costs, and if these waivers expire in June, things will only get harder.

Public health advocates are calling on Congress to extend a waiver program that was implemented early on in the coronavirus pandemic to provides free meals to students, including millions of kids in Florida. The waivers are set to expire at the end of this school year.

The federal government gave schools more flexibility in how and where they could deliver meals and increased reimbursement rates to cover more kids and — in some cases — healthier food options.

If the waivers expire at the end of June, kids could lose out on an important source of nutrition, according to Jamie Bussel, senior program officer with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

“Families are going to have a harder time affording food and schools are going to continue to face some pretty significant financial difficulties,” she said.

According to the foundation, school food service departments suffered more than $2 billion in federal revenue losses between March and November 2020.

Advocates also point to a recent survey that found 95% of school food service departments are struggling with staff shortages and 97% are facing rising costs due to supply chain issues.

Efforts to include an extension of the waiver program in an omnibus spending bill President Biden signed last month failed. A group of federal lawmakers have since introduced bipartisan legislation to extend the flexibilities until the fall of 2023.

Some Republican lawmakers argue the waivers are too costly and that the pandemic is no longer disrupting everyday life enough to justify continued relief.

COVID-19 may more manageable now, says Bussel, but economic problems have not stopped.

“I think families in Florida, families across America are facing continued vicious challenges of rising food prices, loss of, you know, economic assistance like the expanded child tax credit, and having free school meals for all has helped,” she said.

States such as California and Maine have made providing free school meals for all students permanent.

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.
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