School districts brace for end of COVID-19 meal waivers | Education

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Barring congressional action in the next six weeks, school districts in northeast Oklahoma are gearing up to modify their child nutrition programs as several waivers expire on June 30.

In response to the pandemic, the federal government authorized a series of waivers in 2020 to allow school districts and summer meal sites to serve students safely. Those waivers were reauthorized for the 2021-22 school year, but an attempt to extend them in March was blocked in Congress.

In addition to free meals for each child, the waivers allowed venues to send home multiple days of meals and snacks at once rather than a single lunch or breakfast that had to be served during a specific time window. and ate there.

For example, Tulsa Public Schools has offered a week‘s worth of meals at a time to students attending the Tulsa Virtual Academy. TVA families were able to collect these meals outside the former Grimes Primary School on Mondays of the 2021-22 school year. The district offered a similar option to all families before extended breaks in the school year, such as spring break. If the student could not be with the parent for any reason, the parent could pick up meals for the child by presenting identification, such as the child’s school report or birth certificate .

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However, after June 30, none of this will be an option.

TPS will launch its Summer Café option on June 1. For this month, take-out sites and mobile meal sites will be available from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. across the city where students can grab both lunch and lunch.

In July and August, however, students will be required to eat their meals where they are served, either at a mobile catering site or at their summer school site.

Statewide, the number of summer meals served jumped by more than 18 million from 2020 to 2021, a rise that Tulsa-based Hunger Free Oklahoma officials attributed in part to those waivers that allowed more flexibility for parents and site hosts.

“The waivers were designed to respond to COVID-19, and it’s that mindset to act like ‘COVID-19 is over, so we’re not dealing with it,'” said Chris Barnard, executive director by Hunger Free Oklahoma. “Whatever your opinion on the public health front, the impacts are not over.”

Additionally, when school starts in August, in order to continue to receive free school meals, students will need to either complete an application for free or reduced-price school meals based on income or attend a school that exercises eligibility. community of the national school meals programme. Provision, like all basic TPS sites.

Steve Dyer, director of TPS’s infant nutrition program, said his department was unhappy with the end of waivers, but would step up communication efforts to ensure parents are aware of the changes to to minimize the risk of a child not having access to a meal.

“We’re quite sad that the waivers are going away,” he said. “We love serving kids, and it makes it so much easier when you don’t have to make demands.

“If we can feed a child for free, it’s a huge ease to know that no student cares whether they have the funds to get a meal.”

The waivers also provided school districts with a higher reimbursement rate to help cover increased costs brought about by the pandemic, such as personal protective equipment and hazard pay for child nutrition staff, fees delivery costs for mobile meal programs and packaging costs for individual packages. take-out meal.

Nationally, 90% of school districts have used this particular waiver and received higher reimbursement rates.

Normally, school districts are reimbursed on a per meal basis at one rate during the school year and at a second higher rate for summer meal service. During the 2021-2022 school year, school districts received $4.56 for each free or discounted breakfast served and $2.60 for each free or discounted breakfast served.

By comparison, districts received $3.43 for each free or reduced-price lunch and $2.19 for each free or reduced-price breakfast in the pre-pandemic school year.

However, if the waiver expires on June 30, districts will again be reimbursed at a lower rate when school starts in August.

With all students eating free, Union Public Schools served an additional 300,000 lunches this school year and counting.

For district child nutrition program manager Lisa Griffin, this reimbursement rate adjustment will mean a projected budget reduction of approximately 25% for the 2022-23 school year while simultaneously addressing staffing shortages, increases in double-digit percentage of food costs and, in some cases, a single company willing to supply certain required items, such as milk or baked goods.

“One of the bakery companies we have worked with in the past said that it was now too expensive to deliver their goods to us by truck, so we now only have one supplier to work with,” said she declared. “We are at their mercy when it comes to pricing.

The new reimbursement rate has not yet been determined by the US Department of Agriculture, so Union has not yet been able to set meal prices for students and staff. In the meantime, Griffin has tried to acquire and stockpile additional freezable items, such as chicken and turkey, for future meals before prices rise even further.

The Oklahoma State Department of Education, which oversees child nutrition programs statewide, has requested waivers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow take-out meal service to continue and so that parents can take their meals without the presence of their children. .

However, this waiver request is still pending and, if granted, these flexibilities would only be allowed if COVID-19 has forced students to transition to remote learning. They would not apply if a district or school transitions to distance learning for other reasons, such as bad weather.

Like her TPS counterpart, Griffin is unhappy with the prospect of waivers expiring as her department continues to deal with the ripple effects of the pandemic.

“Everyone knows good nutrition helps children learn and grow into functional adults,” Griffin said. “There’s so much research that shows you can’t do anything better than that.

“To withdraw this funding, … we really feel like we need to invest our money in our future and in our children so that they have the opportunity to learn. They have already experienced educational setbacks from COVID-19. We don’t need to do that with nutrition either.

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