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Education

End of pandemic-era free lunches could mean more hungry kids in schools, advocates warn

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Matt Rourke
/
AP
Ayyub Payne,6, collects food for classmates at his table during lunch at the People for People Charter School, Monday, Feb. 25, 2013, in Philadelphia.

The approaching end of pandemic-era school meal rules will mean fewer free school lunches for children starting this summer, advocates warn.

With widespread school closures in March 2020, the federal government waived a number of its usual rules to allow for things like “grab-and-go” meals that families could pick up when schools were closed.

The waivers have also allowed now reopened schools to offer free school meals to all kids – which advocates say is good for both hungry kids and cuts down on a huge administrative burden for both schools and parents who don’t have to deal with paperwork for the program.

Anti-hunger advocates say that even though schools have mostly reopened now, the rule changes are still important because of pandemic-induced supply chain disruptions, rising food costs, and labor shortages.

“We still need to do all that we can to address hunger and make sure that kids are not going hungry. And that's what these waivers do. They help us feed kids that would otherwise go hungry,” said Adam Morgan, advocacy coordinator for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.

But all that will end on June 30, unless Congress acts to extend the waivers; it did not do so as part of a larger spending bill passed last month.

“We are disappointed that we weren’t able to secure needed resources and flexibilities to help school meals and summer feeding programs deal with the serious challenges they are facing,” said a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Schools have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic to ensure the children in their communities continue to have healthy, nutritious meals to eat. And the administration will continue to do everything we can to support leaders running these programs during this difficult time.”

Not extending the rule changes means “millions of children [will] face a hunger cliff when they lose access to summer and school meals,” said Luis Guardia, President of the Food Research & Action Center, in a statement.

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