Universal Free School Lunches Might End This Summer

school lunch

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Key Takeaways

  • The pandemic-era universal free lunch program might be coming to an end once the federal child nutrition COVID-19 waivers expire on June 30.
  • These waivers have allowed schools and summer programs to offer free meal pick-ups and deliveries to students.
  • If the waivers are not extended, these meal programs will have to scale down their operations significantly, leaving food-insecure families vulnerable.

The federal nutrition waivers have allowed schools to provide free meals to every student during the pandemic. However, these waivers are set to expire on June 30, and many students are at risk of going hungry.

A 2021 report found that 1.5 million students could not afford school lunches. Many of them fall in the difficult category of having too high of a household income to be eligible for free lunch while still being unable to afford the price of cafeteria food.

“We all want to put the pandemic behind us, but what school meal programs face is nowhere close to normal," Beth Wallace, MBA, SNS, president of the School Nutrition Association, said in a press release. "We desperately need these waivers to manage unyielding supply chain disruptions and labor shortages, cover rapidly escalating costs, and remain viable to support our communities.”

Summer Meals Programs in Jeopardy

Thanks to the nutrition waivers, some lunch programs were able to offer meals for pick-up to support social distancing. School meals were also reimbursed at a higher rate in response to supply chain disruptions and rising food costs.

“These waivers are key to allowing program operators the flexibility they need to best get meals to children. When the waivers expire, we will lose these flexibilities and will need to return to pre-COVID program design,” Laura O’Carroll, public policy manager with the Greater Chicago Food Depository, told Verywell in an email.

Nonprofit organizations like The Greater Chicago Food Depository rely partially on USDA reimbursements to fund their summer meal programs. One of its initiatives, The Lunch Bus, has been bringing food directly to underserved Chicago neighborhoods. The mobile food pantry delivers free meals to children and teenagers in communities that are at risk of food insecurity.

Since the start of the pandemic, the waivers have allowed parents and guardians to pick up multiple meals at a time to bring home for their kids. This flexibility helped the Lunch Bus distribute more than 43,000 meals in the summer of 2021, compared to the 12,900 meals delivered in 2019, according to Dominique Gardner, manager of youth food programs at The Greater Chicago Food Depository.

“If the waivers are not renewed beyond June 30, 2022, each child will go back to receiving one meal and must pick up the meal in-person,” Gardner said.

While the Lunch Bus will continue to provide USDA-reimbursed meals even without the waivers, the logistical barriers may prevent some families from receiving enough food this summer.

How Nutrition Waivers Helped the Lunch Bus

In addition to grab-and-go offerings, one of the COVID-19 waivers offered more flexibility on the menu.

Before the pandemic, meal programs only received reimbursements if their menus followed specific USDA guidelines. When it became harder for providers to source whole grains and low-sodium options, meal pattern waivers allowed the program to offer other healthy alternatives.

Lunch Bus recipients can select from two separate meal options—a cold lunch or a shelf-stable option—that both meet the USDA guidelines.

Gardner explained that the meal pattern waivers allowed The Lunch Bus to continue serving healthy food even when vendors couldn’t source certain ingredients due to supply chain shortages.

“The Food Depository believes that no one in our community should go hungry. Children especially need consistent, nutritious meals to grow and thrive,” Gardner said.

The Lunch Bus is only one of the many programs that will be impacted by expiring waivers. Providers across the country are preparing for changes to their nutrition budgets and distribution plans.

Some politicians and non-profit groups are still pushing for these waivers to be extended. But since an extension hasn’t been authorized, some schools have already started announcing plans to raise meal costs for the upcoming school year.

Uncertainties around the nutrition waivers have only added to the challenges already presented by staffing shortages, supply chain disruptions, and increasing food costs.

The Biden administration is scrambling to come up with additional funding to help schools purchase meals, Politico reported. But the small amount of funding may not make up for the costs necessary to feed the students in need.

What This Means For You

If you want to find a summer meal program in your community, search for a local food bank on Feeding America. Even if the location seems far away, you can check if they work with smaller organizations that service your area.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Education Data Initiative. School lunch debt.

  2. U.S. Department of Agriculture. COVID-19 nationwide waiver to allow meal pattern flexibility in the child nutrition programs.

  3. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Child nutrition COVID-19 waivers.

  4. School Nutrition Association. 2021 Supply chain survey report.