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Kansas City schools say students still need free lunches, but federal help is disappearing soon

Two cafeteria workers, right, stand near a stainless steel counter where they are setting out disposable trays of food in a school lunch room. The trays hold a hamburger, French fries and cooked carrots. At left, some students can be seen filing through the line.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
During lunch period at Central Middle School in Kansas City, head cashier Linnette Randolph, right, and Shaundra Collins, a cook and cashier, set out plates of food for students earlier this year for students there.

Schools around Kansas City have been able to provide meals to thousands of children for free, regardless of their family’s income, thanks to federal legislation passed during the pandemic. Now, districts are worried that Congress will let those waivers expire.

Kansas City Public Schools makes a lot of food.

Every day, the school district estimates they provide more than 10,000 lunches to students — at no cost to families.

Such an operation is a feat in normal times, but during the pandemic, it’s only gotten harder to serve all these students, every single day. Across the country, school nutrition services are coping with rising food costs, supply chain disruptions and staff shortages.

In March 2020, Congress gave the U.S. Department of Agriculture the authority to grant waivers making it easier for schools to feed kids.

When COVID forced schools to close their doors, the USDA was able to boost reimbursement rates and waive requirements that limited feeding students in congregate settings and at certain times.

As a result, school districts like KCPS could serve grab-and-go meals to students, even multiple days’ worth, at locations in the community — all while students were learning from home, during a time of extraordinary financial stress for their families.

But those waivers are set to expire at the end of June — lawmakers left them out of the latest federal spending bill.

Waivers allow much-need flexibility

Brian Wieher, director of child nutrition for KCPS, says the potential end of these federal waivers makes it hard to predict what the next school year will look like.

“It's all been crazy," Wieher says. "Supply chain’s up in the air. The USDA changes have been helpful and now they're, frankly, going away in one fell swoop."

Fluctuations in food prices have driven the district's food costs higher than they were before the pandemic — despite KCPS enrolling fewer students.

One of the USDA waivers allows Kansas City schools to make menu substitutions if a food item costs too much to order that week, or when their supplier isn’t able to deliver it.

A stainless steel bar holds large trays of apples, oranges, peaches, celery and small containers of ranch dressing. Students hands can be seen reaching for different items.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Students at Central Middle School in Kansas City file through the lunch line to select fruits and vegetables to add to their plates earlier this year.

When that flexibility ends, Wieher says the school district could be fined for not meeting national nutrition standards — even if it’s due to no fault of their own.

“If we can't get a certain food item, therefore we’re out of compliance, because the waiver doesn't currently exist, because we're still in a state of shock with the supply chain, I could be held financially liable,” Wieher says.

The Food Research Action Center, a national advocacy organization, is calling for the extension of these “critical” waivers for school nutrition programs, including meal flexibility.

“We know that for many kids, the school breakfast and school lunch that they receive are just a core part of their nutrition, and they need to be as healthy as possible,” says Crystal FitzSimons, the organization's director of school and out-of-school programs.

“But we are still in a time of crisis and we think that schools need the flexibility to be able to provide meals to kids, even if they have an issue with the delivery of the food that they're going to be serving.”

Thousands of free meals at stake

Not only did these federal waivers make it easier for schools to purchase and serve food, they also hugely expanded who got to eat it.

Normally, for a student to qualify for free lunches, the USDA sets an income cap of about $34,000 a year for a family of four.

But since the pandemic's start, the USDA has also allowed all districts to offer free meals to all students — regardless of their family’s income.

Grace Liss, director of food services at the Shawnee Mission School District, said the benefit to families was huge. In February 2022, the district was serving about 900 more breakfasts and 3,000 more lunches a day compared to pre-pandemic levels.

Liss said the school district’s families still need the extra support.

“Family's budgets are going to be hit right now with the higher fuel costs, what they’re paying in the grocery store is going to be going up, and so they still need relief in the form of free school meals,” Liss said.

While KCPS can continue to offer universal free meals under another federal program, other Kansas City-area schools would have to return to the pre-pandemic income requirements this summer.

Once universal meals aren't available, Liss said she expects student participation to drop. With fewer kids participating, reimbursement rates decreasing and food prices still rising, Liss said they’ll be “watching every penny” in their food budget.

Several black, disposable plates are shown sitting on a shelf, filled with hamburgers, French fries and carrots. A  student's hand reaches for one.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Students at Central Middle School in Kansas City file through the lunch line to collect their hamburger plates earlier this year.

If the federal waivers aren’t extended, it won’t just impact the school year. It could also hurt organizations that provide summer meals to kids.

For Harvesters Community Network, the region’s largest food bank supplier, the waivers allowed them to set up more distribution sites outside of specific, low-income neighborhoods, and send multiple days' worth of food home with kids.

“We'll be able to do that through June 30. But July 1, everybody's got to sit on a seat and eat a meal right there in the middle of summer,” said Karen Siebert, advocacy and public policy advisor at Harvesters.

Siebert said the food network’s demand is down from the record highs it saw in the beginning of the pandemic. But as federal benefits and USDA waivers are rolled back, she's concerned that need will increase again.

Siebert said they are especially worried for families that make just enough to not qualify for free lunch, but still struggle to afford their grocery bill.

“That's the group that I think we're most concerned about, that we’ll end up seeing at our local food pantries coming to us for help when those resources are no longer there,” Siebert said.

FitzSimons says her advocacy group hasn't given up their effort to get those waivers extended. They’re urging Congress to extend the USDA’s authority to issue child nutrition waivers for another year.

FitzSimons says that schools can’t wait any longer.

“School nutrition programs struggled with supply chain issues, they struggled with increased staffing issues, and this isn't the recovery year that we thought it would be," FitzSimons says. "We need another year to recover."

As of right now, however, that relief is anything but guaranteed.

Liss at the Shawnee Mission School District says she fears that, come August, parents won't know or understand why their kids lost the free meals they’ve come to depend on.

“I really wish parents were educated on how we are funded and that they would be talking to their congressmen and asking them to still provide relief because parents, families are going to need it,” Liss said.

More than ever, education lies at the intersection of equity, housing, funding, and other diverse issues facing Kansas City’s students, families and teachers. As KCUR’s education reporter, I’ll break down the policies driving these issues in schools and report what’s happening in our region's classrooms. You can reach me at jodifortino@kcur.org.
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