A federal program meant to ensure low-income kids are still fed in the summer when school lunches aren’t available is set to be hobbled after June 30. Now Congress is making a last-minute dash to keep that from happening.
Lawmakers are yearning to get out of Washington for a two-week Fourth of July holiday break, a recess likely to give momentum to a bipartisan gun safety deal made in the wake of the Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York, mass shootings last month.
But that same last-week-of-school atmosphere may also help, or potentially kill, a deal to keep the summer meal program from serving fewer kids at least into the fall.
“We have a bipartisan bill,” Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.), the second-ranking Democrat in the House, told reporters Wednesday.
He said that it could come to the House floor as early as Thursday and that he hoped to bring it up under a process used for non-controversial bills but which requires a two-thirds majority for passage.
Without action, many kids — a House panel estimated “millions” — would face reduced access to food if there are more restrictive conditions and eligibility requirements. Some meal sites would have to close, the ability to pick up meals to go would end and parents would be required to fill out eligibility paperwork that largely disappeared during the pandemic.
The tightened conditions would return because waivers are set to expire June 30. The waivers had been extended in 2021 in a government funding bill but another extension, which could have been included in a funding bill in March, was left out amid concerns over the cost and extending again what opponents said were meant to be temporary pandemic measures.
But late Tuesday, mindful of the looming deadline and the recess, the Democratic and Republican leaders of the Senate Agriculture Committee and the House Education and Labor Committee said they’d reached agreement on another extension and found a way to pay for it, using unspent COVID money.
“While the country is on the road to recovery, many schools are still struggling with supply chain shortages and other increased costs that will make it more difficult to serve meals next year. This bill provides additional assistance to ensure that students can get the nutrition they need to help them learn and grow,” said Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), chair of the House Education and Labor Committee.
“This budget-neutral legislation will also put our country’s school nutrition programs back on the right track and keep the permanent pandemic narrative from being used to expand school meal programs beyond their intended purpose,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx (N.C.), the top-ranking Republican on the panel.
It’s unclear exactly how many children would be affected by the expiration of the waivers, but House Democrats on the Education and Labor Committee put it in the millions.
The deal could still be undone by intransigence in the Senate. With senators champing at the bit to leave town, any senator opposing the deal could force a drawn-out consideration of the extension bill, delaying a vote until late in the week when many lawmakers will want to be on their way home.
And Politico reported at least one Republican, Sen. Roger Marshall (Kan.), was threatening to hold up the deal over guidance from the Agriculture Department, which administers the program, banning discrimination over LGBTQ status in food programs that get federal dollars, which includes most school lunch programs.
Hoyer, though, was optimistic. “It has broad, broad agreement, this waiver between now and Sept. 30,” he said.