CARES ACT Guaranteeing Free Lunch for Students is Set to Expire in June

Members+of+the+WHS+cafeteria+staff+pose+with+the+school+lunch+deliveries+during+the+pandemic+closure+of+school.+Photo+provided+by+Genelda+Bartling.

Members of the WHS cafeteria staff pose with the school lunch deliveries during the pandemic closure of school. Photo provided by Genelda Bartling.

As students, teachers and faculty unmask and regather, the brick and mortar classroom may seem
back to normal, but school nutrition workers are bracing for a fast approaching regulatory change
from the United States Department of Agriculture, the federal agency tasked with overseeing
school nutrition standards. On June 30th, 2022, a measure first authorized in the $2.2 trillion
CARES (Coronavirus Aid Recovery and Economic Stimulus) Act of 2020, is set to expire. The
Cares Act responded to mass school closures and economic shutdowns at the pandemic’s onset
by temporarily modifying traditional meal delivery standards and cost to students.
When schools start welcoming students to the classroom again next fall, families should expect
to load funds to those lunch accounts once again, and for far too many families, that is just
another stressful bill to tackle.
It might be hard to imagine in the richest county in the nation, but this will cause stress for some
Loudoun families. Within every corner of the US, many students relied heavily on the pandemic-
era program that delivered millions of free lunches to all public-school students. Initially
proposed to keep students fed nutritious meals throughout school closures in 2020, it evolved
into a popular program that has helped families offset the rising costs of housing, fuel, and food
amid record-high inflation and persistent supply chain outages as the economy continues to
recover.
As the Federal Reserve raises interest rates and pulls back the influx of federal dollars going into
local governments, Congress failed to include an extension of the supplemental school meal
program in the 2022 omnibus bill for fiscal year 2022, which passed late-March, costing nearly
$1.5 trillion. However, not all hope is dead, as congressional leaders reopen debates on new
Coronavirus relief legislation to continue the distribution of vaccines, tests, and treatments. Most
recently, U.S. Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) introduced legislation aimed specifically at extending
and bolstering this program through Fall 2023.
Beyond the student impact, which has helped achieve a 50% reduction in childhood poverty – the
largest in recent history – the program has played an instrumental role in facilitating the
distribution of school meals in compliance with federal regulations, as shuttered schools and
drive-up and delivery services became increasingly popular among families.
Woodgrove School Nutrition Manager Genelda Bartling says that while she doesn’t know how
long the program needs to stay in place, ending it now will pose a new set of challenges to
Woodgrove families and a cafeteria crew already short-staffed. Bartling says that since the
supply chain has had troubles keeping up with schools nationwide, they would not have been able to meet federal regulations without this bill. Nevertheless, she says she is committed to
serving students no matter what comes out of Washington.
The initiative waives the regulatory protocols intended to ensure schools are serving a full lunch
with various options like grains, vegetables, fruit and protein, abiding by MyPlate regulations.
The suspension of these federal regulations saved schools across the country from “substantial
financial losses” for something far beyond their control; and allowing them to go into effect
again would be a major mis-judgement as it relates to the current state of the economic recovery,
inflicting “devastating” impacts on school communities, advocates of the U.S. School Nutrition
Association Action Network warns.
Serving some of the largest numbers of a food establishment in Western Loudoun, often dubbed
as the “area’s largest restaurant,’ Bartling says school lunch numbers have “more than doubled”
since the meals first became free across the board.
This, coupled with high demand across the country in schools just like Woodgrove, demonstrates
just another major change in traditional supply chain operations post-pandemic.
Of its success, Bartling concludes, “I hope that we have been able to attract some new students,
formerly packers, to eat with us.”
Woodgrove Principal Sam Shipp said that the program has been nothing short of “excellent,” and
has been “tremendously beneficial” in helping students recover from the economic, social, and
emotional tolls of the pandemic. He hopes to see the program extended.
As the fate of accessible lunches hangs in the balance on Capitol Hill, The Outlander reached out
to the United States Department of Agriculture, and an official commented,
“We are disappointed that we weren’t able to secure needed resources and flexibilities to help
school meals and summer feeding programs deal with the serious challenges they are facing.
Schools have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic to ensure the children in their
communities continue to have healthy, nutritious meals to eat. And the administration will
continue to do everything we can to support leaders running these programs during this difficult
time.”
Commending nutrition workers at the LCPS Administrative Offices, Bartling tells us they have
been working relentlessly to emerge well equipped for the changes on June 30 th and stated that
some of the cafeteria staff has participated in lobbying efforts to advance a bill that supports
students and cafeteria workers reaching the next step in the economic comeback. She says they
will be closely watching Congress and Senator Kaine's latest bill on this matter.