RICHMOND, Va. (April 13, 2021) – This week, U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger joined No Kid Hungry Virginia and the Federation of Virginia Food Banks for a virtual listening session with child nutrition leaders about how the USDA waiver expiration on June 30 will impact free summer meal sites in Virginia.

Sarah Steely, No Kid Hungry Virginia Director, moderated a conversation between Rep. Spanberger and school nutrition and food bank leaders from Virginia’s 7th Congressional District. 

View the video recording here. (Access code: L+UcL8E#)

Here are five takeaways from the event:

1) School divisions and organizations need flexibility to feed kids this summer and next school year.

Last month, Congress failed to extend the USDA’s authority to issue nationwide child nutrition waivers as part of the omnibus appropriations package. The inaction by lawmakers puts children in Virginia and across the country at risk of losing access to meals this summer and next school year.

“When the pandemic first hit, the waivers made perfect sense,” said Rep. Spanberger. “Now, two years later, we are in a different, yet equally challenging position, and extending the waivers is vital to ensuring children continue getting fed.”

No Kid Hungry Virginia and its partners are calling on Congress to allow the USDA to extend the waivers through the 2022-2023 school year to help program operators handle the ongoing challenges, respond to emerging needs, and prepare for the transition.

2) Nutrition waivers are working and integral to combat childhood hunger. 

Lisa Landrum, director of food and nutrition services at Goochland County Public Schools, says that they’ve seen more meal participation in their program than ever before.

“Letting the waivers expire so abruptly, not only for the summer but for the 2022-2023 school year, could have adverse effects on the children who are struggling with hunger as well as possible detrimental financial repercussions to school meal programs,” said Landrum.

Linda Blair, coordinator of food services, Orange County Public Schools, is also seeing meal participation rate increases due to the waivers.

The district, which is home to 10 schools and just under 5,000 students, is serving 1,000 more meals per day thanks to the waivers. Blair is seeing boosted breakfast and lunch participation in schools that wouldn’t typically qualify for free meals as well.

“It’s very likely that some parents in these qualifying areas were choosing not to complete free meal applications or not to apply for SNAP because they perceived an attached stigma,” said Blair.

She expects breakfast participation to decrease by at least 37% and lunch participation to reduce by 18% if the waivers are not extended.

3) Waiver flexibilities supplement supply chain disruptions and rising food costs

School nutrition teams, food banks and other child nutrition operators are building gameplans and combating changed or missing food orders daily. 

Currently, 92% of school districts nationwide cite trouble sourcing the food they need due to ongoing supply chain disruptions and nearly 75% report staffing challenges. 

“On one of our most recent orders, we saw 38 substitutions and 14 items that didn’t come at all,” said Casey Dickinson, associate director of food and nutrition services at Chesterfield County Public Schools. “The nutritious meals that are getting out the door are only happening because of the amazing work of the staff that are working tirelessly to see them through.”

Due to rising food costs, Chesterfield County’s nutrition team expects to pay $1 million more for expenses mid-year compared to the same time period before the pandemic. Meanwhile, labor costs for the nutrition team are $500,000 more at mid-year despite staffing shortages as current staff work overtime to meet the need.

Dana Whitney at Henrico County Public Schools is experiencing all-time high equipment, labor and food prices as well.

“If we go back to the old service model, we would lose out on $8 million of revenue. I could do a lot of good with that kind of money,” said Whitney.

4) Returning to congregate meals means less kids can access sites, especially in rural communities.

Transportation is a major barrier to feeding kids, but meal providers have been allowed to pack food for multiple days, deliver meals or take advantage of other flexibilities that make it easier to connect kids to meals under the current waivers.

The changes not only promote safety but are practical for working parents and families without reliable transportation who have trouble making it to their local site. 

Some sites will be forced to close if the waivers are not extended. 

Zach Nissen, director of programs at Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, estimates that 3-4 sites in rural Shenandoah Valley would no longer be eligible and would have to stop operations if the waivers end.

The Fredericksburg Regional Food Bank’s partners were able to serve 32,000 meals across seven sites – almost triple what the organization served in congregate settings, according to Carey Sealy, director of programs at the organization.

Three sites in the Fredericksburg region will have trouble opening without the waivers. Sealy expects that summer meal participation in her program area would decrease by 42%.

Casey Dickinson also highlighted Chesterfield’s 13 curbside feeding locations that operate on Tuesday afternoons, providing families with five days of meals and about 7,800 meals a week for virtual learners.

“Losing that non-congregate waiver would impact these families in unimaginable ways,” said Dickinson. 

5) Nutrition teams are creative and unstoppable 

“The creativity happening among schools and food banks is unparalleled – kids are getting fed, families are getting access to meals, and all while ensuring that dietary and nutrition guidelines are being followed,” said Nissen.

By extending beyond the typical nine-to-five, Monday-Friday point of access – community sponsors could better meet the needs of families and knock down barriers, he noted.

Spanberger thanked nutrition operators for their dedication, spirit and willingness to share their time.

“The idea that there are kids throughout our country who are currently not worried about being hungry because of the work you all are doing is remarkable,” said Rep. Spanberger. “How can we expect children to be the next generation of teachers, scientists and entrepreneurs if they aren’t first provided for? Feeding kids is so clearly just a basic human need.”