Extension to pandemic-era school meal waivers passes, but with caveat

·4 min read

Jul. 2—MASSENA — An extension to the pandemic-era school meal waivers program that was passed by Congress last week contains a caveat that would require most low-income families to apply again for the program and, for students who qualify for reduced-price meals, to resume paying for breakfast and lunch.

The "Keep Kids Fed Act" waiver that had been in place since the start of the pandemic was set to expire Thursday.

Massena Central School Superintendent Patrick H. Brady said the district is awaiting further guidance, but it may mean educating parents on completing the required forms for free or reduced meals, something they haven't been required to do since the waiver took effect. The pandemic waivers allowed all children to obtain free school meals, regardless of income.

"The law was passed on June 25 and we anticipate that we'll receive further guidance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for assisting our child nutrition program directors in our districts and throughout the state and country on how this will all work for both this summer and the school year," Mr. Brady said.

"When the pandemic started, we were all very pleased to see that all students would have universal free meals. It was very helpful for families," he added. "Now, particularly with the rise of inflation, it's a challenge for families. If they have more than one student, it's more of a problem. All of us had hoped and had lobbied through various groups, organizations and methods to try to get Congress to continue to support universal free meals. Ideally, we would have liked to have seen universal free meals. But at this point, it doesn't appear that's going to happen."

As it stands now, he said, the free and reduced-price meals for eligible students will be provided starting at the beginning of the school year.

"This summer, the meals will continue to be free for students," he said.

The district provides free summer meals to participants in the Massena Joint Recreation Commission's summer recreation program, as well as for students attending elementary, junior high and high school summer school at Jefferson Elementary and Massena Central High School.

"But when the school year starts, unless the law changes, we will need to require that parents once again fill out free and reduced-meal applications, which may be confusing for some now that after two years of free meals they will be required to fill out applications and go through the eligibility process," Mr. Brady said.

He said the district has anticipated confusion over the law changing.

"So we're going to now need to do an education process for parents that come September they'll need to fill out their lunch application so that we can see if they are eligible. We're going to need to do a strong education outreach to parents because they haven't had to fill out these applications for two years. We're going to need to educate them and urge them to fill out these applications so that they can have access, and then the district will get the proper reimbursement," he said.

Mr. Brady said the district received a higher level of funding with the free meal program, which allowed it to balance the school lunch budgets.

"There's not many schools that can make a profit from school lunches," he said. We don't really try to make a profit. We just want to provide nutritious meals and break even. For many years, Massena and a lot of other schools struggled, going into the red with their school lunch budget."

With the change in the program, districts will see lower federal reimbursement rates. The program continues to give districts extra funds to compensate for higher food and labor costs, but not as much as they had been receiving. They will receive an extra 15 cents for breakfast and 40 cents for lunch, on top of the annual adjustment for inflation in July.

Without an extension of the waivers, the USDA had projected in March that the average reimbursement a school would get for a meal would drop from $4.56 to an estimated $2.91.