Professionals who care about the administration of lunch to kids can both rejoice and relax, at least for now: The Keep Kids Fed Act passed the House and Senate and was signed into law by President Joseph Biden. The law will extend free meals throughout the summer, but more work unquestionably will need to be done to ensure the continued delivery of meals to kids.
Before the Keep Kids Fed Act was passed, Congress had previously created waiver programs during the pandemic that extended the National School Lunch Program to allow all students to receive free school meals. These waivers removed regulations, increased reimbursements, and reduced pricing requirements that made it easier for kids to be fed.
The National School Lunch Program is a bedrock program in the United States, feeding tens of millions of American children daily. According to pre-pandemic statistics:
- 20.1 million children receive free lunches every day.
- 1.7 million pay a reduced price, and another 7.7 million pay the total price for lunch.
- This means that 4.9 billion lunches are served every year.
These meals are typically given out during the school year, but the COVID-19 pandemic changed all that. Fortunately for all 29 million students attending public schools, a series of federal waivers allowed all students to get free breakfast and lunch. Other waivers gave additional money, adjusted meal times, increased drop-off sites and better managed navigating the supply chain disruptions during the pandemic.
So, What Is in the Bill that Passed?
The law extends free meals and waivers to school districts throughout the end of summer. Previously passed legislation had only made those extensions and meals go through June 30, 2022.
The Keep Kids Fed Act is a continuation of already existing law with some expansions. The Keep Kids Fed Act allows the following:
- Kids will receive free meals throughout the end of the summer of 2022.
- For the 2022-2023 school year, kids will have to qualify for free or reduced meals.
- The Department of Agriculture will reimburse school districts at higher levels to account for inflation.
The following pandemic waivers were extended through the Keep Kids Fed Act:
- Food providers maintain food distribution flexibility, including flexible meal-distribution locations, such as distributing meals outside and allowing students to bring meals home through the summer.
- Food providers maintain flexible nutrition substitutions to account for continued supply chain disruptions through the 2022-2023 school year.
Prior to these specific waivers being passed during the pandemic, school districts and lunch program administrators had to adhere to specific meal distribution regulations and nutritional requirements. These requirements increased the cost of school lunch payments. Furthermore, given supply chain and shipping difficulties, they made dealing with school lunches far more expensive. As such, these standards were waived again.
What's Not Included in the Bill?
The bill does not have everything all sides wanted. For example, the House version initially allowed any student who got a reduced-price meal to get a free meal, but the Senate eliminated that. As a result, eligibility requirements for kids will change. The House version also extends the bill throughout the year, but only a summer extension made it through the Senate and was signed into law.
What Does This Mean for School Districts?
There's good news and bad news for school districts. The higher reimbursements, continued flexibility and summer extension means that they do not have to worry about removing anyone from the free lunch program until the end of the summer. This action is unquestionably a benefit for cash-strapped students and families who may not have access to nutritious food.
On the other hand, many districts had begun to communicate the changing program needs with parents, and they must now go back and explain that the program is still in effect for the rest of the summer. Furthermore, many districts will have to continue to reach out to families and make sure they are aware of the enhanced guidelines, enrolling as many kids as possible into a valuable program for which they qualify.
How Does This Impact School Districts and Food Service Professionals?
There is no question that school districts and food service professionals will need to react to the new changes. On the one hand, communities will now have to plan for the continued free and reduced lunch program that will go on during the summer. Fortunately for these districts, they will also continue to have regulatory flexibility, which means they'll be able to give food out much easier. They'll need to communicate these changes with students and families. On the other hand, there are eligibility changes for free lunches, which will need to be communicated as well. Districts must address these issues from a communications and outreach standpoint.
Still, serious worries remain. The free meal extension is only through summer, and the other waivers were extended for the 2022-2023 school year. It is certainly possible that another extension may come later for future school years beyond 2023. It also may not. School districts must be ready to manage any extension request.
What Do Schools Need to Do to Prepare?
School districts and lunch administrators can continue "business as usual" in most respects, but not all. The continued flexibility in terms of what food can be given out means that fewer changes in operations are necessary. However, eligibility requirements have changed, so schools and lunch administration programs must prepare for the new requirements by communicating these issues to their families. At the same time, districts must make any back-office adjustments to be ready for the administration of these new guidelines.
How Are States Reacting?
Some states, including California, Connecticut, Maine and Vermont, have already extended free lunches for the 2022-2023 school year or made free lunches permanent, regardless of what the federal government does in the future. Additional states, including New York, Massachusetts, and Minnesota, have expressed an interest in doing the same. It remains to be seen how these states will respond in light of the Keep Kids Fed Act.
Other states have begun to prepare for the summer extension, with a specific note of appreciation for the increased reimbursements, given the increase in food prices resulting from inflation.
Fortunately for districts and administrators, some of the benefits from the school lunch waivers have been extended. Unfortunately, the free meal waivers were only extended through the summer. As such, directors have to be prepared to return to some pre-pandemic era procedures. School admins will still need to maintain some flexibility as they navigate supply chain shortages (and staffing shortages) and be prepared to pivot where needed.
Payment processing for school districts can be a significant administrative burden. Thankfully, there are ways to alleviate that burden, including working with cashless school payment systems. At Vanco, we pride ourselves on working with school districts to provide high-quality service at affordable prices. Contact us today for more information.