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New legislation could extend COVID school meal waivers

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Local school cafeterias may not be through handing out to-go bags for the summer.

On Friday, Congress sent a measure to the White House that would extend several school meal waivers initially authorized in the spring of 2020 that are set to lapse on Thursday.

Announced Tuesday by a bipartisan group of federal lawmakers, among the provisions of the Keep Kids Fed Act is language that would allow school districts and other organizations to continue offering grab-and-go meal service through the end of the summer rather than require students to eat their food on site. It will also allow for meal deliveries in rural areas.

With that waiver set to lapse in the middle of the summer, some area districts, including Sand Springs and Jenks, opted to forego the grab-and-go option and offer dine-in options only in an effort to minimize the number of transitions for participating students and families.

However, several others, including Owasso, Tulsa and Union, all chose to utilize the waiver as long as possible and offer some form of grab-and-go service through the end of June.

Currently, Owasso Public Schools sends home one week’s worth of breakfasts and lunches on Mondays to families who pre-order their meals for pickup. Between the weekly pickups and participation at their two in-person summer feeding sites, the district has served about 49,000 meals this summer as of Thursday.

Meanwhile, Union offers curbside service four days a week while Tulsa Public Schools has almost 40 grab-and-go sites available five days a week.

On Wednesday, officials with both Owasso and Union said via email that their districts would continue to offer grab-and-go summer meal service past Thursday if the waiver is extended in time.

A spokeswoman for Tulsa Public Schools said the district is interested in continuing to offer grab-and-go meal service for students not participating in campus-based summer programming but that a decision on whether to do so would be contingent upon the exact wording in the bill’s final form.

As of last Thursday, TPS had served 80,000 meals this summer via its Summer Café and Mobile Meal sites.

Statewide, more than 20 million meals were served in 2021 via the Summer Feeding Program, a one-year increase of about 18 million meals.

Additional flexibilities that would be extended by the proposal through 2022-23 include providing school districts an extra $0.15 for each breakfast and $0.40 for each lunch to help cover the increased child nutrition costs brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, plus holding districts harmless if they are unable to serve meals that meet certain federal nutritional requirements due to supply chain disruptions.

Although the $3 billion package would provide free meals in 2022-23 to students who would have qualified for the reduced price prior to the pandemic, it does not call for extending the waiver to provide universal free school meals when classes resume in August.

The measure was initially approved Thursday in the House of Representatives, amended and approved via unanimous consent in the Senate, then referred back to the House on Friday for final passage in its amended form.

Among Oklahoma’s delegation, Reps. Markwayne Mullin, Frank Lucas, Tom Cole and Stephanie Bice were among the 376 representatives who voted for the measure Thursday afternoon. Rep. Kevin Hern voted no.

Hunger Free Oklahoma, a Tulsa-based nonprofit organization, is among the entities welcoming the news that at least some of the child nutrition waivers could remain in place for a little longer.

“Hunger Free Oklahoma and many others have been calling for action on these crucial issues for months now,” Executive Director Chris Bernard said.

“While in D.C. last week meeting with congressional officials and anti-hunger leaders, we were heartened to hear that these discussions were taking place and that the bipartisan discussions have produced a bill that provides certainty, something that has been severely lacking over the last year, to children and families, schools and other child nutrition providers through the end of next school year.”

Video: Spring break meals draw long lines of Tulsa kids

Tulsa Public Schools offered no-cost, take-home snack and meal packs for children under 18 for spring break on Friday, March 11, 2022, at a central location. The district ran out after all 250 packs prepared were distributed with 20 minutes remaining in the two-hour distribution window publicized to parents and guardians. 

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My primary beat is public education. I am a third-generation graduate of Oklahoma State University, a board member for Oklahoma SPJ and an active member of the Native American Journalists Association.

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