Pizza is on the menu at Mayfield High School, a favorite among the 200 students that pour into the western Kentucky cafeteria, grabbing red trays and finding their place in line during the lunch rush. Fries are sizzling in the deep fryer behind the counter and some students grab yogurt parfaits.
The normalcy of the school’s lunchtime is a break from a challenging few months for the small town of about 10,000, still recovering from a deadly tornado that tore through the courthouse square and destroyed much of the town’s housing stock.
But the district’s nutrition director Leah Feagin is worried that their ability to provide reliable, free lunches to kids will be limited in the coming months, after Congress failed to extend child nutrition waivers in the latest federal spending bill.
Mayfield Independent School District is already facing challenges in the years ahead. Community leaders are worried about keeping their community together, and schools are worried about losing enrollment and therefore state funding for the district. On top of that, Feagin said she’s dealing with inflation and spiking fuel prices, making the food she budgets for even more expensive.
“So this summer, our costs are going to be higher than ever before,” Feagin said. “With what we’re forecasting in the increased cost of food, supplies and fuel, there’s no way we would break even.”
Child nutrition waivers issued during the pandemic have been a boon for meal programs, allowing them to continue distributing food while also adapting to the spread of COVID-19. The waivers provide more federal funding for each meal distributed, and also provide flexibility from rules meal programs normally operate under. But without congressional action, they’re set to expire June 30.
Feagin said without that extra federal funding, it leaves her facing the daunting possibility of canceling her summer meal program, which is especially crucial for some kids because school isn’t in session to provide regular meals.
“Potentially, we can’t feed kids this summer,” Feagin said. “We would do it in a heartbeat. But you got to pay your staff, and you’ve got to pay for the food. And that money’s got to come from somewhere.”
It’s a situation faced by meal program coordinators in school districts and community organizations across the Ohio Valley. The unexpected loss in federal help has collided with economic pressures beyond their control. Child nutrition advocates fear the expiring waivers will mean grappling with budget shortfalls and some children going hungry.
Thrown Into Turmoil
Federal lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have pointed fingers at each other over why the waivers weren’t extended. Democrats have accused Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of pushing to exclude the waivers to rein in pandemic-era costs. His office denies that and says President Joe Biden didn’t include the waivers in his budget proposal.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Democratic U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio said he was “outraged,” placing blame on Congressional Republicans for blocking the extension, while a spokesperson for Democratic U.S. Senator Joe Manchin said the senator was “disappointed.”
Regardless of the blame, child nutrition advocates in the Ohio Valley are facing the consequences of it. And advocates are frustrated that months of lobbying to extend the waivers didn’t pan out.
Kate McDonald, who runs the No Kid Hungry Kentucky campaign at the nonprofit food bank network Feeding Kentucky, wrote an editorial in the Louisville Courier-Journal in October to raise awareness about the issue. Now, with the waivers set to expire in the middle of the summer, she worries about the turmoil that summer meal programs could be thrown into.
“How do they manage a program where the rules basically, completely change in the middle of the program,” McDonald said. “A lot of them do not have the capacity to switch things up in that significant of manner.”
Some waivers provide more flexibility for how meals get to kids. Traditionally, kids have to eat meals at a designated site, but the waivers allowed school districts to find other ways to distribute food like delivery or handing out multiple meals to feed kids at home for days. McDonald is concerned the change could be jarring to families used to getting meals under the pandemic-era rules.
For Chrissy Musser, she’s already hearing from parents reaching out asking about the upcoming school summer meal program in Meigs County, Ohio. She’s organized a weekly food pickup the past two summers that she says have fed more than 1,400 kids each week, with cars stretching a quarter-mile around the local elementary school serving as a pickup spot.
Without the waivers to do such a distribution, she still hasn’t announced to her community the meal distributions of past summers probably won’t happen.
“It’s literally made me sick,” Musser said. “How do we see in two months from now that families are going to be any better off than they are today? Because they’re not. I mean, they’re going to need this service more so than ever, and not to be able to provide it is unsettling at best.”
With kids having to get a meal in person, instead of the numerous families picking up several meals to go, Musser said it could leave out many in her rural county who don’t have reliable transportation.
“That’s what this is gonna force us back to,” she said. “75% of the kids, they’re just gonna go hungry.”
Musser also estimates the loss in federal funding from the expiration of the waivers would create a 25% shortfall for her school district’s food budget. While she’s glad the spread of COVID-19 appears to be receding across the country, she says the inflationary effects of the pandemic are still being felt by families in her community. And child food insecurity is still very real, especially in the Ohio Valley: Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia were all above the national average before the pandemic, according to Feeding America. It hasn’t gotten better since the onset of COVID.
An Ongoing Pandemic
For Martina Leforce, program manager for Berea Kids Eat, the ongoing pandemic is still a threat to her eastern Kentucky community and says the expiration of food waivers will force her summer meal program to drastically scale back, possibly reducing the number of summer meal sites in the city by more than half. And she says some food service industry colleagues who work with her have lost loved ones to COVID-19 or who suffer from “long haul” COVID-19.
“A lot of us were called to action as sponsors when COVID started, and it feels sort of like having lifelines cut off,” Leforce said. “I think that’s the challenging part for even a congressional member to understand is that these aren’t just programs. It’s human beings who are operating these programs who’ve been operating under the same struggles and constraints as the families.”
She knows her community will rally to fill the gaps, she said, but that doesn’t make the loss of federal help any less frustrating.