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Districts brace for big school lunch changes as Congress ends some pandemic aid

Waivers for school nutrition program set to end
Trevor Nouvel
Posted at 5:00 AM, Mar 24, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-24 07:16:12-04

BURLINGTON, VT — No matter the age, many have fond memories of the school cafeteria.

It's people like Holly Thompson who often spark these found memories. She's been serving students for more than 19 years.

"I just love my job," Thompson said.

FUNDING FOR LUNCH

But something many students don't think about is who is paying for the food provided in the lunchroom. That's where Doug Davis comes in. He is the food service director for the Burlington School Food Project in Vermont, and he is responsible for figuring out how to pay for school lunches.

While sandwiches are still relatively cheap, nowadays, the district offers healthier and more expensive foods.

"School meals have changed a ton," Davis said.

The "change" is where he says the country has an emerging problem.

When the pandemic started, Congress gave extra cash to school districts via special waivers so that more students could get free meals because the need was greater, and students needed many of their meals outside of school since remote learning was taking place. According to the School Nutrition Association, complicated paperwork was waived so more students could qualify.

However, when President Joe Biden signed the appropriations bill into law this past month, the extra money and waivers were no longer included. As a result, key funding will expire soon.

"Starting July 1, our reimbursements are going to drop substantially," Davis said.

It's something Davis says is already happening all over the country.

During the pandemic, school districts received around $4.56 per lunch per student. After July 1, they'll only receive $3.66 for children who qualify, and now, many of those students won't qualify.

With food prices rising, Davis says it will create financial headaches for school districts. He says there will soon be kids who will no longer qualify for a free lunch in a couple of months.

"There are definitely kids who will be impacted in that exact way," Davis said.

Davis says school districts will have to raise prices for children whose parents can pay or find the money elsewhere.

As for where this debate stands in Congress, advocates are lobbying for more funding, but right now, that effort is stalled.

Holly Thompson just hopes lawmakers remember what is important.

"If they are hungry they are going to act out, or not sit still. Food does make a difference," Thompson said.