RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — A nonprofit group worries kids will slide back into poverty and food insecurity if child nutrition waivers for schools and daycare centers put in place early in the COVID-19 pandemic are allowed to expire at the end of this academic year.
Without an extension, those waivers put in place by the U.S. Department of Agriculture will expire June 30.
“And we’re really concerned about what that’s going to mean,” said Crystal FitzSimons, the director of school and out-of-school time programs at the Food Research & Action Center advocacy center.
North Carolina has the 10th-highest rate of food insecurity in the nation, with nearly 600,000 of the state’s households not having enough food each day, the North Carolina Justice Center says.
The most recent data from Feeding America, a nonprofit network of food banks, showed 18 percent of North Carolina children faced food insecurity in 2019 — the pre-pandemic baseline — with it projected to climb past 20 percent.
“We know that kids have been falling back into poverty,” FitzSimons said.
Those rates can vary wildly between counties. Orange County has the lowest rate in the state at 11.4 percent before the pandemic while Wake County (12.1 percent) was third-lowest.
But more than 31 percent of Scotland County children were food insecure in 2019 — and that rate was projected to climb past 35 percent.
In central North Carolina, about a third of kids in both Edgecombe and Halifax counties were projected to face food insecurity.
“We feel like school meals (are) just a critically important, powerful, effective way to mitigate some of the hardships that are continuing, that are going to continue to face kids and families in America,” said Jamie Bussel, a senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Nearly 90 percent of school districts took advantage of a waiver that allowed them to serve meals for the 2021-22 school year at no charge and provided higher rates of reimbursement, a USDA survey found.
Without an extension, that waiver will expire June 30.
“We do need swift action,” FitzSimons said. “But we think Congress has time to move forward on this.”
Bussel and FitzSimons want those waivers extended by 15 months to Sept. 30, 2023, to make for an easier off-ramp.
“That will give schools and families and communities another year to recover, and another year they have access to meals,” FitzSimons said. “If we extend it to Sept. 30, we can have an easy transition back to the 2023-24 school year. That gives schools time to recover from the supply chain issues that they’ve been dealing with and the staffing shortages.”
They say a bipartisan Senate bill introduced last month by Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) and supported by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) would help, by allocating funds to the USDA and allowing the agency to extend those waivers. Each of the Senate’s other 49 Democrats is listed as a co-sponsor, but the bill still would need at least 10 other Republican votes to pass.
Bussel and FitzSimons also credited some states for not waiting for Washington to act, taking up legislation themselves.
California is supplementing the USDA funding by spending $650 million to continue offering two free meals per day to every student in public schools, regardless of income.
And in Maine, the budget bill signed into law provides for free meals at school for all students in public schools during the 2022-23 academic year.
“And we need to be lifting up those bright spots, because I think they’re really important, powerful examples of actually what can get done,” Bussel said.