‘Starvation doesn’t end in a pandemic’: Michigan educators, lawmakers say schools need flexibility to feed children now

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State education leaders warned Tuesday that more Michigan children could go hungry if the federal government doesn’t allow school districts to provide the kind of grab-and-go meals they have offered since the spring.

The meals, available since the pandemic forced schools to go remote, came with fewer restrictions than do school lunches, generally. For instance, during the coronavirus crisis, schools and community partners were able to offer meals outside of the school setting and districts didn’t require families to furnish proof of enrollment during a meal pick up. Now the federal government is insisting the country’s K-12 schools transition back to the national school lunch program rules.

“This is going to have a very harmful effect on our children and families who are struggling during the pandemic,” said state superintendent Michael Rice during a Tuesday press conference. “To limit the necessary feeding of children at any time is reprehensible. In a pandemic, it’s an outrage.”

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, the head of the federal agency that oversees the nation’s school lunch programs, in a letter to U.S. Rep. Robert Scott, said that while the agency will still review requests for waiver extensions, continuing under the rules of the Summer Food Service Program, as pandemic-era meal distribution has been, is beyond the scope of the agency’s authority. Doing so would amount to “a universal school meals program which Congress has not authorized or funded.”

He also noted: “Americans are a generous people, and there are already opportunities for breakfast, lunch, and snacks, and weekend meals for children in need.”

But the grab-and-go meals available to families this spring and summer were considered crucial for students in high-poverty districts who rely on school meals. In the Detroit district, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said that during the height of the pandemic in March, the district distributed 110,000 meals a week. Detroit schools provided meals to anyone who showed up, but Vitti said this week that will change starting on Sept. 8, the first day of school, when proof of enrollment will be required.

“Our food and nutrition staff has done a great job of providing meals for the greater community in the pandemic,” Vitti said during a school board committee meeting Monday. “Based on the latest federal guidelines breakfast and lunch can only be provided to students enrolled in the school district. We won’t be able to feed the greater community.”

Absent federal waivers, there also would be limits to how many meals parents can pick up. They would have to go to each of their children’s schools to pick up meals, rather than grabbing them all from one location. And schools would have to record student information for each pickup, which critics say will slow down the process. The end of the waivers would also mean districts could no longer partner with community agencies to help distribute meals.

School districts would have to devote more time and resources to comply with meal distribution requirements, which could limit food access for needy families, school leaders said during the Tuesday press conference.

“We cannot allow red tape to stand in the way of a hungry child receiving a meal,” said Casandra Ulbrich, president of the State Board of Education. “We need the U.S. Department of Agriculture to continue providing these flexibilities so our schools and community groups can continue to provide the nutrition necessary for growth and learning.”

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, who serves on the committee on agriculture, nutrition, and forestry, said that some 800,000 children in Michigan “get their only meals at school.” She and other legislators recently sent a letter advocating for the renewal of the federal meal waivers.

“The reality is that we need all of these flexibilities to continue,” said Stabenow, a Democrat.

Students without consistent access to meals could struggle more in school.

“We know poor nutrition can have an impact on student development. We know things like food stress leads to some difficulties and challenges, even in neurological development. It can make it more difficult for students to learn,” said Coby Fletcher, the superintendent of Escanaba Area Schools, a rural district serving about 2,300 students.

To help students who attend Beecher Community School District, most of whom are Black and come from low-income families, schools need flexibility, said Marcus Davenport, the district’s superintendent.

“Starvation does not end with a pandemic,” he said. “We are the primary source of nutrition for many students within our district.”

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