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With a pandemic-era program expired and no help from Congress on the horizon, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says his department is considering options for how it can take action.
A month after President Biden pledged to ease hunger in the country, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Tuesday that his department is working to improve nutrition for K-12 students, including providing grants to help schools make healthy meals “from scratch.”
But with the expiration of a federal waiver that allowed students to eat for free during the pandemic posing a major obstacle, Vilsack said the department is working to find other options to enable more schools to offer free meals to low-income students.
A USDA waiver created by the Trump administration in 2020 and extended by Biden had allowed all schools to get federal reimbursements to offer free meals to all students, and not just those in poverty. The waiver expired in June, requiring schools to show that at least 40% of their students are on federal poverty programs in order to qualify for the reimbursements.
The amount of funding schools get under the federal school meals program, known as the Community Eligibility Provision, depends on what percentage of students receive help through programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
With Republican lawmakers reportedly opposed to bringing back the waiver, Vilsack said that his department will be looking for alternatives that don’t require congressional approval to help more schools qualify for federal reimbursements to provide meals for free.
“There are some administrative steps that can be taken at USDA to make it easier from an administrative perspective for school districts to be able qualify for community eligibility,” Vilsack told reporters at a nutrition and health care summit organized by the Agriculture Department.
Most school districts opt to have students apply for free or reduced meals. But to provide free meals to all of their students, participating in the Community Eligibility Provision program is the main option that schools have, Nicolas Zerbino, a research analyst at the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy, said in an interview.
Deputy agriculture undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer Services, Stacy Dean, said at Tuesday’s event that, “a big part of what we can do is make sure states and districts are aware of their eligibility.” The agency, for instance, could begin checking whether schools have enough low-income students to qualify for reimbursements several times a year, she said.
Dean also said the department could work with states that are interested in making school lunches free, as California and Maine have done, to pay more of the schools’ share of providing free meals under the Community Eligibility Provision.
In addition, Nevada, Massachusetts and Vermont have extended free school meals until next summer. A ballot measure in Colorado would also make meals free.
The School Nutrition Association has pushed for the federal government to continue making school meals free for all students.
“Research shows students receive their healthiest meals at school, and school meals are proven to support learning, boost test scores, improve attendance and classroom behavior, and contribute to students’ overall health and wellness,” the association said on its website.
Dean, though, acknowledged that Congress would need to pass legislation to greatly increase the number of kids eligible for meals. An option to do so would be lowering the threshold for schools to be able to qualify for funding and increasing the amount that they get.
Zerbino noted that unless the federal government or states pay a greater share of the cost, providing all students free meals will be too expensive for many school districts.
Tuesday’s event was a follow-up to another conference Biden held at the White House last month pledging to do more to combat hunger in the nation.
"If you look at your child and you can't feed your child, what the hell else matters?" Biden said.
“Right now, I think we have a window of opportunity,” Vilsack said during a speech on Tuesday. “We simply need to meet this moment.”
The department has already taken a number of steps to try to improvise nutrition at schools, which he called a top priority.
“We're encouraging the folks who produce school meals to do the very best job they can possibly do,” Vilsack told reporters later. “One way is to equip schools to be able to go back to the day where they make things from scratch,” he said, pointing to $50 million in grants the department announced earlier this month, to help schools buy food service equipment.
The money was on top of $30 million the department gave schools earlier this year, including the Iowa-Grant School District in Livingston, Wisconsin. The district was able to buy a dishwasher, allowing it to make foods like granola and cheesy broccoli soup from scratch, according to a department press release.
Boyne Falls Public School District, in Michigan, used some of its funding to buy a steamer to cook locally sourced vegetables, including beets, string beans, and brussels sprouts for students at the high school, the release said.
The department in September also announced a $100 million Healthy Meals Incentives Initiative.
The first phase of that program will give small and rural school districts $150,000 each to improve nutrition for students. The grants can be used to deal with issues like the rising cost of food, staffing shortages, lack of space, and outdated kitchen equipment. A second phase later this year will, among other things, work with farmers to supply food to schools.
Kery Murakami is a senior reporter for Route Fifty.