It may only be March but Be Mighty is already preparing for the changes in meal distribution set to take place over the summer. For the last two years, meal sites nationwide have been given flexibility and aid that’s been essential to addressing the needs of their communities, but now it seems like some of these provisions may be on their way out. As many Americans have expressed a desire to simply ‘move on’ from the pandemic, some members of Congress are eager to show signs of a return to normalcy. For child nutrition programs, however, this would mean a return to pre-pandemic restrictions. As fate and funding hang in the balance, now is the time to advocate for the programs (like ourselves) that provide free and accessible meals for kids.
The most crucial form of federal assistance during the pandemic have been child nutrition waivers through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). In 2020, the USDA was approved by Congress to issue the waivers, which streamlined operations, made up for supply chain issues, made serving times more flexible and, perhaps most importantly as it relates to our own program, established a grab-and-go meal system. Prior to the waivers, kids were expected to stay on-site and eat in a congregate setting. If they didn’t finish the food weren’t allowed to take it home either, which isn’t always realistic for a parent in a rush.
Many of these waivers are set to expire June 30 of this year, but the problems the waivers sought to address will not. As of 2019, 16.6% of households in Arkansas experienced food insecurity (compared to 10.5% nationwide) and over 60 percent of students in Arkansas received free and reduced lunch. The data we have suggests these numbers either or increased or at least stayed the same through 2020 and 2021. Pandemic or not, these problems persist.
Luckily, there are a couple of bills that are making their way through Congress that may help make up the difference. In June 2021, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Senator John Boozman (R-AR) proposed the Hunger-Free Summer for Kids Act which, if passed, would allow grab-and-go meals to continue and offer Summer EBT to parents through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Upon introduction of the bipartisan bill, Boozman said:
“The summer meals program is in desperate need of an update as many of the rules date back to the 1960s. The one-size-fits-all solution is simply unworkable under normal conditions, much less during periods of stress like what we experienced over the past year. The flexibilities granted by Congress during the pandemic offer a good recipe for how to successfully serve more children in need. We want to ensure that all options—from off-site, grab-and-go models, to home delivery, to electronic benefits transfer—remain on the table.”
There are several provisions that will be voted on this year as part of the larger Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) bill as well. Two of those pieces of legislation come from the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP)— the Access to Healthy Food for Young Children Act and the Early Childhood Nutrition Improvement Act. The improvements proposed between the two include additional meal service for kids in childcare for 8 hours or more, $5 million dedicated to healthier meals and practices, less paperwork, and increased reimbursement rates, all to make it easier for sites to serve quality meals. They would also give childcare centers and afterschool programs annual eligibility, so they can serve meals through the summer, instead of requiring a separate application and approval process.
The urgency of all this legislation is a recognition that these systems were outdated long before 2020. This country seems to be in a rush to put the pandemic in the past, but we need to take a moment to look at what we’ve learned from it. COVID put a magnifying glass on food insecurity and the restrictions that make addressing it more difficult for nutrition programs. We need to act now to make meals as accessible as possible for those who need it.
Let’s face it, meals don’t just matter in a pandemic. They didn’t start mattering when schools were in lockdown, and they don’t stop mattering just because we’re in-person again. They don’t just matter from August to May. We all know poor nutrition leads to poor public health, so join us in advocating for the protection and expansion of year-round meal programs by asking Congress to extend child nutrition waiver authority. Let’s ensure the kids in our community are getting the nutrition they need not just to get through the school day, but to live happy, healthy, and free from hunger.
Disclaimer: The content in this blog post does not necessarily reflect the thoughts of the Central Arkansas Library System. We share it to spark conversation and discussion, and to provide a glimpse into what enables us to serve our community.