Free meals for all Michigan students to end in June unless federal COVID allowances extended

Children will not be guaranteed free meals beginning in July and school nutrition programs will have less flexibility to handle supply chain and staffing issues that have improved some, but not abated.

Congress has not given the US Department of Agriculture authority to extend waivers that – since 2020, as the pandemic disrupted families’ lives and livelihoods – ensured every student breakfast and lunch regardless of income, increased meal reimbursements rates and eased the many regulations guiding school nutrition programs, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services reported last week.

Families are already stretched by increased costs and inflation, said Jennifer Mattison, director of food and nutrition services for Dexter Community Schools and the Washtenaw County Intermediate School District.

“Times are still rough,” Mattison said. “So, to remove the ability for all students to eat for free, it’s going to put a lot of pressure on families.”

Most affected will be those just over the line separating families who qualify for free or reduced meals through the National School Lunch Program, and those who do not, she said. They have not had to budget for school meals for two years.

RELATED: About 90,000 children affected by COVID school disruptions will receive additional EBT benefits

Behind the cafeteria lines, nutrition programs also need the aid, said Mattison, president of the School Nutrition Association of Michigan.

“The problem is our industry is still dealing with huge ramifications from the COVID pandemic,” she said.

At times, Mattison and her staff did not have bread. Suppliers could not get it to them, and they had to go searching. Mattison had to scour too for plates, among other items, going to stores across the region and imploring her mother to check retailers in Lansing.

Additionally, the price of milk and eggs is up 10 to 20%. Chicken and beef are up 30 to 40% and sometimes programs are seeing a 300% increase on the cost of disposables, Mattison said.

President Joe Biden, supported by Democrats, urged an extension, but met Republican resistance. The waivers were to be temporary and extending them would cost more than $ 11 billion, while the party is worried about rising deficits, reported the Washington Post.

Michigan is working with US Sen. Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, to convince Congress to restore the waivers, according to the state health department. Stabenow, with others, introduced a bill to extend the flexibility through September 2023.

“We should make it easier for kids to get the meals they need – not harder,” Stabenow said in a statement. “As we come out of this pandemic, schools are doing their best, but it takes time for them to transition back to their operations before COVID. We can’t let hungry kids get caught in the middle. ”

Many children benefited from the COVID-related allowances. Families lined up to collect meals during closures. But all did not take advantage, Mattison noted. At Dexter High School, with an enrollment of about 1,100, about 400 to 450 students ate school lunches before the pandemic. During the pandemic, the number rose to 600 or more.

Among the long list of 2021-2022 adjustments, the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service made it unnecessary for schools to check income eligibility for free meals, allowed parents or guardians to pick-up meals and bring them home to children, permitted meal service outside traditional times, and gave states flexibility to present foods that do not meet specified “meal pattern requirements” when needed.

Usually, if a free meal does not have all the mandated components, schools cannot submit that meal for federal reimbursement.

This does not mean that with the waivers, nutrition programs are giving up on efforts to serve nutritious, well-rounded meals, Mattison said. They are still trying to serve fruits, vegetables and milk.

“But if we’re not able to get that in because f the nature of the market, then what are we going to do?” she asked

Mattison has worked in school nutrition about eight years and has not seen anything like this. She has heard the same from people serving kids for decades.

“As an industry, we are not afraid of hard work,” she said. “We are willing to put the time in and take care of our kids, and really penny pinch and make sure we are getting the absolute best value in the products we serve for our kids. The problem is right now, isn’t not about what’s the best value product. It’s what product of anything can I get in. ”

School food programs also are plagued, as many businesses and organizations, with staffing concerns.

Mattison has a 28-person team, but at the start of the year, she was eight people short. Schools were once standout places to work, with competitive wages, but the market has come up around them.

She has seen unprecedented turnover during a stressful time. It is not permanent, she assures employees, and has gotten better.

“But we’re still in such a difficult spot with trying to source food, and trying to make sure that the stressors that we feel are not being conveyed to the students,” said Mattison, dressed for Cinco de Mayo in a taco costume and hat. “Because they’re here, we want to make sure that they have a really positive experience, and they can come in and (it’s a) safe place… where they can get fueled and ready to learn for the rest of their day. ”

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