Kansas' children can continue to receive free lunches through summer 2022, USDA announces

Rafael Garcia
Topeka Capital-Journal
Kansas schools will be able to continue serving millions of free meals and breakfasts to children aged 1 to 18 through June 2022, the USDA announced Tuesday.

Schools across the U.S. will be able to continue offering free meals to students and any children ages 1 to 18 through the entire 2021-2022 school year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Tuesday.

"It's such exciting news for Kansas families that all children in all local educational agencies across the state will be able to eat free for all of next school year," said Cheryl Johnson, director of child nutrition and wellness at the Kansas State Department of Education.

By extending the program, USDA officials said American children will continue to receive free, healthy meals "as the pandemic continues to threaten the food and nutrition security of our most vulnerable." 

"States and districts wanted waivers extended to plan for safe reopening in the fall," Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said in a statement. "USDA answered the call to help America’s schools and childcare institutions serve high quality meals while being responsive to their local needs as children safely return to their regular routines."

More: Since start of pandemic, Kansas schools have served millions of free meals (and counting)

The USDA, which for more than 40 years has provided federal funding for schools to offer free breakfasts and lunches over the summer, had in spring 2020 allowed schools to offer that program outside of the summer in the confusing, early stages of the pandemic and its effects on U.S. schools.

Waiver allowed lunches for students learning remotely

Typically, the free summer meal program was restricted to schools and districts in areas with high concentrations of low-income students, but school districts were also granted waivers from that restriction, among others, to be able to serve students who had been learning remotely last school year. The waivers also allowed schools to serve meals for multiple days, including the weekends.

The national agency had earlier in the fall extended the program first through the end of the 2020 calendar year, then-President Donald Trump signed a bill allowing the agency to extend the program through Sept. 20, 2021.

Tuesday’s announcement also states that schools will continue to see relaxed or waived restrictions on when and how meals are served to students as U.S. schools begin thinking about operations after the pandemic.

Johnson said that reduction in administrative red tape has been a tremendous boon for local school nutrition programs, which are already facing other increased workloads to serve students during the pandemic.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona called the move a necessary step to supporting children and helping them learn without empty stomachs.

“It’s critical that our efforts to reopen schools quickly and safely include programs that provide access to free, healthy meals for our most vulnerable students, particularly those whose communities have been hardest hit by the pandemic,” Cardona said in a USDA release. “This program will ensure more students, regardless of their educational setting, can access free, healthy meals as more schools reopen their doors for in-person learning.”

Schools will receive higher reimbursements for meals served

With the continuation of the program, schools will receive “higher-than-normal” reimbursements for each meal served under the program to allow schools greater financial flexibility while emphasizing nutritious meals that provide fruits and vegetables, milk, whole grains and reasonable calorie levels.

In a recent study of more than 20,000 children and almost 40,000 adults, researchers found that the nation's schools were usually the best source of healthy food for both children and adults, especially as meal programs have worked to improve meal offerings to their students.

Proposals to implement permanent, universal free school lunches for U.S. children have languished in Congress, but bipartisan advocates for the policy have seen a potential path this year in the wake of USDA's extended free "summer" meal program.

While Congress typically goes through the Child Nutrition Reauthorization — or a broad group of legislation that includes various food assistance programs — process every five years, the legislative body last took up the process in 2012. In any case, most child nutrition programs are able to continue without explicit reauthorization.

About half of Kansan children have been eligible to receive free or reduced lunch in the last few years. For the 2020-2021 school year, more than 225,000 students, or 44.8% of the state’s K-12 population, were approved to receive free or reduced-price lunches.

Johnson said school meals can be "safety nets" for children who depend on them to grow and thrive, and that they'll continue to play that role as some of the state's largest districts — like Wichita USD 259 and Kansas City USD 500 — return to normal operations. 

"When kids have healthy meals and they have access to safe, healthy meals, it definitely has a positive effect on their ability to learn and be successful in life," she said.