Prioritize kids’ meals

Feb 21, 2022 | Uncategorized

Published in Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: February 17, 2022

Too many kids still go hungry

by Kathy Webb and Allison Dela Cuesta

Since 2020, the pandemic has upended daily life, and many families throughout Arkansas have experienced financial and health challenges. Yet, even as times were tough, schools and community organizations were able to make sure kids got the good nutrition they need.

It hasn’t been easy. But early in the pandemic, Congress gave the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) the authority to issue national child nutrition waivers that made it possible for schools and local organizations to adapt their nutrition programs so they could still reach kids with the food they need. But this authority expires on June 30.

Allowing this authority to expire would have a devastating impact for hungry kids in our state. In order to make sure that children in Arkansas continue to get the meals they need, Congress must act now to grant the USDA authorization to extend nationwide child nutrition waivers through this summer and through the 2022-2023 school year.

Schools and community organizations have continued to pivot and adapt, in spite of the obstacles they face, to feed kids. As they face an ever-changing landscape, only one thing is for certain: These obstacles can–and will–pop up at any time. It is more important now than ever to give schools and local organizations flexibility.

For example, the nationwide child nutrition waivers give schools and community organizations more flexibility on when they can serve meals, which is important to ensure less frequent contact and exposure for kids and families during times of social distancing. They help schools manage programs even when supply chain challenges disrupt food or supply deliveries. Waivers help schools cut through red tape at a time when many school programs are understaffed.

And, when needed, waivers allow for families and children to pick up meals to take home through a grab-and-go model or allow for meals to be dropped off at a child’s home.

Summer is one of the hungriest times of the year for children. And when kids don’t consistently get the nutrition they need during the summer months, it can have an impact on health, well-being and their readiness to return to the classroom in the fall.

However, schools and local organizations across Arkansas have been able to better provide kids with the nutrition they need in the summer because of the flexibilities provided by waivers. For example, parents were able to pick up multiple meals at a time to bring home for kids.

If the USDA is not able to extend waivers past June 30, it will severely restrict the ability of schools and other organizations to operate summer meal sites. And that means thousands of kids across our state would miss out on access to the healthy meals they need during the summer months.

Additionally, as schools are preparing for the 2022-2023 school year, they don’t know if they’ll be operating under the current waivers. This means as they prepare bids for food purchasing and write new menus, they’re essentially operating in the dark. As they continue to grapple with supply chain issues, economic aftershocks, and the impact of new variants, meal providers must be able to adapt their programs at a moment’s notice.

Authorizing the USDA to grant nationwide nutrition waivers ensures that school districts and local organizations have the tools and time they need to adapt and respond to challenges in real time, while also helping them budget and plan more effectively as they transition back to more normal operations.

School and community meals remain a critical lifeline during a turbulent time, and flexibilities provided by waivers have been crucial as schools and organizations work to feed kids. By granting the USDA authorization to extend waivers, Congress could simultaneously help schools and community organizations while also ensuring kids across Arkansas can access the meals they need.

The Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry–including Senator Boozman–must prioritize helping hungry kids.

Kathy Webb, a member of the Little Rock City Board, is CEO of Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, and Allison Dela Cuesta is senior manager for No Kid Hungry Arkansas.