Last week, the bipartisan Support Kids Not Red Tape Act of 2022 was introduced in the Senate. Arkansas families need Sens. John Boozman and Tom Cotton to support this bill, which would address an urgent need--keeping kids fed and avoiding unnecessary bureaucratic red tape in our kids' school meals.
Thanks to Senator Boozman's leadership, summer meals are the standard at Arkansas schools. But it's time to do even more.
You may already know that Arkansas has the second-highest hunger rate in the U.S. Food insecurity is the reality for one in five children in our state. Since the beginning of the pandemic, USDA child nutrition waivers that reimburse schools for the meals they serve each day have been a lifeline for students and families. But the waivers are set to expire at the end of this school year. We need our legislators to support the continuation of these waivers.
School nutrition departments are expected to run like a business, even though school nutrition is a public program. Their budgets are required to be separate from school budgets, and they must generate their own revenue, which is why kids have to pay for school lunch. Because of this system, schools have to complete countless hours of paperwork and spend time tracking down lunch debt.
Over the last two years, schools have been free of these burdens due to the USDA waivers. This has eliminated both the financial burden of meals for Arkansas families and the bureaucratic hoops that schools have had to jump through.
Furthermore, as many as 95 percent of school meal programs in Arkansas are still battling supply-chain challenges that put them at an even greater disadvantage, according to the USDA. Due to supply-chain inconsistencies, school nutrition departments are struggling to track down the items they need to feed hundreds of kids every day, and often paying extra for missing ingredients to be rush-delivered. Schools are seeing a huge jump in the monthly costs of feeding kids, some as high as $200,000. The USDA waivers will ensure school nutrition departments have the funding and administrative flexibility they need to source complete, nourishing meals for Arkansas kids.
Our students have faced many challenges because of the pandemic. We now have an opportunity to keep consistent the ability to feed our kids through the next school year. Extending these waivers already has broad support from the Arkansas School Nutrition Association, the Arkansas School Nurses Association, members of the Arkansas Farm to School Collaborative, local leaders, organizations, and school districts across the state.
We don't charge children for textbooks, for the desks they sit at, or for their ride on the school bus. Nourishing meals are just as critical for educational outcomes as any other school supply. More than that, eliminating hunger for our kids is a moral imperative, and school nutrition staff need more support to feed Arkansas kids.
Senator Boozman has been integral to statewide efforts to feed Arkansas children, and we urge him and Senator Cotton to continue their support for our Arkansas children and families and help pass the Support Kids Not Red Tape Act of 2022 (S.3979).
Destiny Schlinker is Arkansas Program Associate Director at FoodCorps.