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Central Ohio school districts worry that Congress may not extend federal meal waiver

The U.S. Department of Agriculture warned lawmakers that voting to not extend the waiver could result in schools not being able to serve meals to students.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Lawmakers in Washington are divided over whether to extend the meal waiver program that allows students to receive a free meal for breakfast and lunch regardless of economic status. 

The bipartisan omnibus bill Congress unveiled Wednesday to keep the government running does not extend child nutrition waivers that have allowed schools to serve free meals to all students and played a major role in curbing child hunger during the pandemic. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture warned lawmakers that voting to not extend the waiver could result in schools not being able to serve meals to students. 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell opposed extending the waivers as part of the omnibus package. 

He argued that the waiver was never meant to be permanent and that the $11 billion price tag to extend it for another year wasn’t palatable to Republicans who are concerned about the increasing deficit.

The program is set to expire on June 30. 

In Ohio, approximately 1.5 million people qualify for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), according to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. 

In Columbus City Schools, at least 45,000 students can qualify for free or reduced meals. That's according to the district's Director of Food Services Joe Brown.

That's a free breakfast for every student in the district. 

"There is a tremendous need [and] it extends beyond Columbus. A hungry student is a hungry student," said Brown.

According to Brown, the district is committed to feeding every child even if Congress doesn't extend the federal food waiver.

But how the district will pay for those meals is another question. 

This year, the district said it costs $2.61 for a single breakfast and $3.95 for a single lunch. The district is reimbursed $2.60 by the federal government for a breakfast and $4.56 for each lunch. 

Take away the waiver and the district gets $2.35 for every breakfast and only $3.68 for every lunch. 

If the federal meal waiver is not extended, CCS said it will be in a financial pinch. If meals aren't reimbursed at the higher level, it will need to borrow money to cover the cost. 

"Worst case scenario, we continue to lose money then that could be dollars taken away from student's education from general fund dollars," Brown said. 

That cost increases because the district also provides meals when kids are out of school for summer programs through the city's recreation and parks. 

"It's going to be a huge lift and a big challenge for school districts to maintain a profitable food service operation," Brown said. 

CCS isn't the only central Ohio school district facing a similar issue. 

Hilliard City Schools said about 4,000 of its students qualify for free or reduced lunches. The district plans to send out notices to parents if the waiver isn't extended that they will need to apply for the free lunch program. 

Southwestern City Schools has more than 9,000 students that qualify for free or reduced meals. The district warned parents that many will have to pay for their child's lunches while others will need to re-apply for free lunches if the waiver is not extended. 

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