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Education

Texas schools can’t provide to-go meals this summer after federal waivers expire

Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT

A pandemic waiver allowing parents and guardians to pick up free meals from schools expired at the end of this school year in Texas. Some are now concerned fewer students will have access to nutritious food over the summer.

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Texas school districts are losing flexibility in how they provide free meals to students this summer as federal pandemic waivers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture expire.

Since March 2020, school districts have been able to let parents and guardians pick up to-go meals for their children. The waiver allowing that expired on the last day of the 2021-2022 school year. Now, children will have to eat meals at school district-approved sites, and their families will not be able to take the food to go.

Rachel Cooper, a senior policy analyst with Every Texan, a left-leaning state policy think tank, says it is going to be more challenging for families to access meals when kids have to be taken to a meal site each day. Plus, she says, it will be harder for school districts.

“They have to have enough staff to be able to do that every single day versus being able to bunch the meals together and serve them once a week,” Cooper said.

She said she’s concerned fewer children will get the meals now that these flexible options are going away.

“Summer meals have always been a ‘problem child’ in Texas because it is so hard normally for families to access, because children have to be taken up to a site,” Cooper said. “They have to have transportation or a way of getting to the school or community center, and then they have to have someone watching them while they eat and stay there.”

Cooper said participation in summer meal programs in the state has long been low.

“It only serves about 12% of the kids who get regular school meals in Texas, and that’s what we’re afraid we’ll go back to seeing,” she said.

One step the Austin Independent School District is taking to try to ensure kids have access to free meals over the next few months is increasing the number of sites where they’re serving them. Linley Danner, Austin ISD’s interim executive director of food service and warehouse operations, says free breakfast and lunch will be served on site at more than 50 locations.

“We know that we’re the primary source for nutrition for a lot of kids, and that doesn’t end in the summer,” Danner said. “So our goal is to reach as many families as possible.”

The meal sites are open to anyone who is 18 or younger, as well as enrolled students with disabilities who are up to 21 years old.

Danner said, during the pandemic, another federal waiver has given Austin ISD the opportunity to provide free meals to all students regardless of income eligibility.

“It really showed that a lot of kids rely on our school meals and enjoy our school meals and want to participate,” Danner said.

She’s concerned about what will happen if Congress does not extend that waiver for the upcoming school year, because then some students will have to start paying for meals.

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) introduced legislation earlier this year to extend the pandemic school meal waivers, but it did not make it into the $1.5 trillion spending bill Congress passed.

The USDA has released guidance that allows for some flexibility, according to Lena Wilson, the assistant commissioner for food and nutrition with the Texas Department of Agriculture. She said, for example, if there is a COVID-19 outbreak, schools could once again allow families to pick up meals to go, even though the federal waiver has expired.

More information about where to find summer meals can be found by calling 211 or visiting summerfood.org.

Local school districts offering summer meals include:


Central Health, Sendero Health Plans and the Central Texas Food Bank are also offering free lunchtime meals for Travis County children who are up to 18 years old. Meals are available at Central Health Southeast Health & Wellness Center, 2901 Montopolis Drive, Austin.

The meals will be available from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday until Aug. 5. Families can also receive snacks for the weekends on Fridays.
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