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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 09:52:24-04

BURLINGTON, Vt. — Not matter your age many of us have fond members of the school cafeteria.

Perhaps you had a cafeteria worker like Holly Thompson.

She’s been serving students for more than 19 years.

"I just love my job," Thompson told our Joe St. George during a recent visit.

FUNDING FOR LUNCH

Something you don't think about as much when you are young is who is paying for the food that is 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 it all gets paid for.

While sandwiches are still relatively cheap, nowadays healthier and more expensive foods are offered too.

"School meals have changed a ton," Davis said commenting on his salad bar and aray of choices.

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

You see when the pandemic started Congress gave extra cash to school districts via special waivers so that more students could get free meals. They did this since the need was greater and students needed many of their meals outside of school since remote learning was taking place.

Complicated paperwork was waived so more students could qualify according to the School Nutrition Association.

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

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

"This is going to happen all over the country?," St. George asked Davis.

"It’s going to happen all over and is already happening," Davis said.

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

With food prices on the rise this, davis says, this will creates financial headaches for school districts.

"Are there kids today who are getting a free meal today who won’t get a free meal in a couple months?" St. George asked Davis.

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

Davis says school districts will have to decide to either 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.