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Federal school meal waivers are about to expire: The view from South Carolina

Access to school meals could get sparse for thousands of students in South Carolina, once a pandemic-era federal program paying for breakfast and lunch disappears.
Scott Morgan
South Carolina Public Radio
Access to school meals could get sparse for thousands of students in South Carolina, once a pandemic-era federal program paying for breakfast and lunch disappears.

At the end of this month, 14 pandemic-era waivers that have paid for breakfast and lunch in American public schools for the past two years are set to expire, with little belief that these waivers will be extended.

Like so many things these days, the issue has turned politically partisan. Congressional Democrats, led by Senate Agriculture Chair Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, want the waivers (distributed through the USDA) extended through the 2023 school year, as an item in the next federal budget. Congressional Republicans, led by Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, don’t.

A sticking point is that the waivers were meant to cover meals for kids when schools had to go virtual, which McConnell has argued is no longer the case. President Joe Biden also has maintained that the waivers were always meant to be temporary.

But far from Capitol Hill, school districts and food banks in South Carolina are trying to find the best ways to navigate the return to meal programs as they existed before April of 2020, when the waivers kicked in.

“I don’t think this should be political fodder,” says Erinn Rowe, CEO of Harvest Hope Food Bank in Columbia. “It’s very easy to talk high-level about budgets and money and political influence. There’s a definite place for that, but … making sure the children of this country can eat and learn is the only thing that’s going to drive change, because that’s going to enable them to be more self-sufficient and sustainable.”

As Harvest Hope steels itself to fill in where schools might fall short after the Seamless Summer waiver ends (it’s expiring on July 1 but pays for summer meals into August), Rowe remains agitated by the fact that children are being made to bear the brunt of food insecurity that has had a working solution.

The School Nutrition Association and districts around the state have argued that paid-for meals have shown measurable benefits, boiled down most simply to this: When kids aren’t hungry, they do better in school.

There’s one ironic bright spot for the state’s poorest districts, like Marion, Allendale, and Dillon schools – they’re poor enough to qualify for the Community Eligibility Provision, or CEP, which covers the cost of meals for all students.

“All kids eat free [here],” says Missy Moody, director of food and nutrition at Dillion School District 4. “There’s not a group of paying or reduced [cost] children.”

That’s, at least, during the school year. This summer, like most schools in the state, Dillion 4 is part of Seamless Summer. In the past, Moody says the district has paired up with community partners to provide summer meals, and will likely have to do so again next summer. But during the school year, meals for the kids in school are not an issue.

Neighboring Dillon School District 3, however, is another story. Dillon 3, a smaller district than 4, is in the problematic middle-ground of being a poor district, but not able to qualify for CEP. No one at the district spoke to South Carolina Public Radio.

But Dillon 3’s plight is not limited to the district. For districts that don’t qualify for CEP, the business of providing meals – by charging the students they can charge – will have to resume next year, as if it were 2019 again.

The catch is that, well, it’s very much not 2019. In the middle of 2022, supply chains are choked across multiple industries, South Carolina schools are facing huge teacher shortages (not to mention a revolving door of superintendents, according to the South Carolina Organization of Rural Schools), fuel costs are higher than ever, talks of recession are propping up more frequently in the news and on social media, rents and home prices are spiking in several areas (Rock Hill’s rents are up 40 percent from just a three years ago, according to ApartmentList), and prices at the grocery store are ballooning. All of which families have to contend with while not necessarily making any more money than they did a few years ago.

School districts have to contend with it all too. At the Greenville County School District, Food and Nutrition Director Joe Urban says he expects chicken to hit $6 per pound soon, a price he calls “absurd” when thinking about how to budget for school food.

In Rock Hill, School District Communications Director Lindsay Machak says she’s seen food insecurity grow over the past year, along with the cost of dealing with it. Like Greenville, Rock Hill will have to return to charging kids for meals, unless those kids qualify for free or low-cost meals. Parents will need to fill out a form to request fee-or-reduced meals, which is not actually as straightforward as it sounds.

“We know parents are busy, so that really creates a barrier for some students who may need these free meals, if their parent chooses not to take the time to fill that form out, or if their household income is too high for them to qualify, but we know that they're still hungry,” Machak says.

She’s aware that some parents will simply not fill out those forms; some might not realize they’re even an option. Urban says that federal income limits to qualify for free-or-reduced school meals are “pretty lenient.”

Some parents, however, are not aware that school meal policies are changing. In Lancaster, a mother of four who only wants to be referred to as Ms. Greer, told me she had never even heard about school meal waivers until I told her about them. Like certain school districts, Greer falls into a troublesome middle-ground – too wealthy to qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which would automatically qualify her children for free meals at any public school in the state, but not wealthy enough to know she can always pay her bills and still have enough to feed the kids.

“I’m out of work right now, undergoing health issues that stopped me from working, so I’ve definitely had to rely on the school meals,” she says.

Greer says she’s turned to community organizations, like HOPE in Lancaster, to supplement food for her children. She encourages people in her situation to find local help as well.

But she’s appreciated the free school meals for another reason – having breakfast and lunch provided at school had negated her need to find help on her own, which not every family in her position will even realize they could do.

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.