Capital High School cafeteria manager Barbara Lopez said that when the coronavirus pandemic shut down New Mexico schools, her staffers were some of the only people still working in the buildings.
At first, she said, they were just making meals for students to pick up. Then they began delivering the food via bus.
“We were scared and freaked out: What if we get COVID?” she said. “But we thought, ‘You know what? The kids have to eat.’ ”
Child nutrition waivers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture helped ensure that happened; they expanded access and distribution of free meals for all children amid the pandemic.
Those waivers, which allowed for free meals for all Santa Fe Public Schools students again this school year, aren’t included in a draft of a new federal spending package lawmakers are deliberating this month. The possibility of losing them worries nutrition workers and welfare advocates.
The waivers also boosted reimbursement rates on meals for school nutrition departments and organizations and relaxed rules about take-home meals that usually had to be consumed on site.
Santa Fe Public Schools nutrition director Elizabeth Cull said losing the waivers could result in fewer students eating school lunch.
The district has served an average of 2,600 free breakfasts and 5,650 free lunches every school day this year, she said.
Asked if the district was ready to function without the waivers next year, Cull wrote in an email, “We have to be. It’s not optional. We will make it work as best we can.”
When the district is charging for meals and not all students can pay, the district can rack up a debt of $30,000 to $35,000 a year, Cull said.
“There is no debt since all students are eating free,” she said. “This will change dramatically once we go back to standard meal service.”
About 70 percent of students in the district qualified for free or reduced-price lunch in the past, with percentages varying from school to school. Many schools in the district, including Capital High, had high enough numbers of students from families using Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits to serve free lunches to everyone before the pandemic.
Other schools — more than a dozen at the start of the 2019-20 school year — required parents to fill out eligibility forms to qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
In 2020, New Mexico passed legislation covering the co-pay for students eligible for reduced-price lunch.
But New Mexico School Nutrition Association President Marie Johnson, who is also the student nutrition coordinator at Farmington Municipal Schools, said the co-pay coverage is only helpful if families fill out eligibility applications.
“Without the waivers, first and foremost, most of us are going to be in a battle to complete the free and reduced meal applications,” she said in a recent interview. “It’s one of our big obstacles.”
That could be a struggle for some families experiencing newfound economic problems during the pandemic, said New Mexico Voices for Children research and policy analyst Emily Wildau .
“We do know COVID-19 caused really significant economic challenges for families who maybe hadn’t experienced that before and maybe aren’t familiar with the programs available,” she said.
In a state where Wildau said 38 percent of families with children report their kids aren’t eating enough, she expressed concern that even some families who aren’t eligible for free or reduced lunch may struggle too.
Johnson called the possible lack of waivers next year, combined with supply chain issues and rising costs, a “perfect storm” for school nutrition departments that have benefited from increased reimbursement rates on school meals.
“We have been told by many of our vendors we’re not going to see the end of this well into 2023,” she said of supply chain issues. “We’re going to be struggling and fighting to buy food and supplies.”
Johnson added, “I don’t know how school nutrition departments are going to survive.”
It’s not just schools struggling to determine what next school year will look like.
Community organizations that use federal funds to provide free meals for children are also wondering about the future of their programs, including local nonprofit Food Depot, which runs a summer food program for children.
Deputy director Jill Dixon said pandemic-era rules allowing children to take their free summer meals to go and share them with family at home were a big step forward in reducing stigmas for low-income families.
If the waivers aren’t renewed, children will need to consume the meals on site again.
“We really want to put on a respect and dignity lens,” she said.
Dixon said the tighter rules put the Food Depot in a tough spot. On one hand, the organization wants to take advantage of the federal dollars provided to run the program.
On the other, without the waivers, children have less agency over how they can access the free food — and lowered reimbursement rates are likely to put organizations providing free meals into debt.
“It’s a little disheartening, to see us be so quick to strip away these waivers and new approaches to hunger relief at the federal and nutrition program level that made such a difference,” she said.