Schools lose bid to extend free meals program from pandemic

The across-the-board free breakfast and lunch program initiated during the pandemic was sold as being all about students and families. But a last-ditch effort in Washington by educators from Minnesota and other states to preserve key elements of the USDA program reveals how school districts also benefited under the wide-open federal meals initiative.

Carrie Frank, the head of the Minnesota School Nutrition Association, told the Post Bulletin schools will need to make changes starting with charging for some meals again after advocates failed to convince Congress to extend the program past the pandemic.

Those waivers were implemented during the pandemic to help provide relief for families. Frank, however, believes the discontinuation of the waivers also could affect schools themselves.

“If the food service fund goes in the red, the general fund has to (compensate for it),” Frank said. “We feel it’s going to make financial hardships for a lot of districts.”

According to the School Nutrition Association, the pandemic-era waivers “kept school meal programs financially afloat by reimbursing free meals at a higher rate to account for rising food, supply and labor costs.”

The free meal waivers also were beneficial in the sense that school districts had to absorb any school lunch dues that were not paid throughout the year.

The enormous lobbying effort that went into the campaign to extend the two years old free meal project shows how quickly federal spending creates a constituency. Hundreds of school nutritionists were mobilized to lobby in Washington.

It wasn’t just Frank making the effort. According to the School Nutrition Association, there were more than 130,000 letters sent to Congress about the issue. There also were 700 School Nutrition Association members working on the issue on Capitol Hill. Frank said there were 17 representatives from Minnesota.

Another key waiver implemented during the pandemic allowed schools flexibility to work around federal government nutritional regulations for student meals. But once again, educators’ attempt to preserve the loosened guidelines fell short.

Making school meals free wasn’t the only waiver the association pursued. Members also tried to extend a waiver that would have allowed schools to forego their nutritional requirements.

That may sound counterintuitive to the goal of school meal programs, but in a tight market it has become more difficult to find suppliers making meals that met the requirements.

“There’s no money in making school-compliant food,” Frank said. “There’s a 20% labor shortage in these processing plants. So when they have employees, they’re going after the retail market.”

Yet the program’s expiration on June 30 may ultimately pay off for some districts. It turns out the free flow of federal dollars created an unintended consequence that made it more challenging for schools to receive funding from other sources.

Free meals meant families had less incentive to disclose their financial status to school districts. That provided a challenge for schools since they receive funding based on the number of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch.

And for some districts, that can make a substantial difference. According to Rochester Public Schools Finance Director John Carlson, districts are able to use that additional funding — known as “compensatory funding” — for expenses such as extra teachers, social workers, and paraprofessionals.

To be sure, qualifying students will still receive free or reduced price meals. But school districts will no longer receive a blank check from the federal government to pay for all students’ meals or other expenses.