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Leaders work to keep children in Arkansas schools fed

Child nutrition waivers created during the pandemic allow free access to meals at school, but the program is set to expire soon. What's being done to keep it around?

PERRYVILLE, Ark. — If you have school aged children, you've probably noticed that breakfast and lunches have been a little different throughout the last school year or so.

The big change hasn't been what's on the menu, but rather the cost. For a while now, school lunches have been free for students.

Child nutrition waivers are what have kept those meals free, and Perryville School District Superintendent Walt Davis knows that firsthand. 

He has been no stranger to the challenges that have been brought on by the pandemic. Thankfully, he said things have been much better lately.

"We were grateful for that period of time when we received those waivers because they were very helpful to everyone involved," Davis said. "Coming out of the pandemic is a wonderful thing. you know, we're not there yet, but certainly things are way better than they were two years ago."

The child nutrition waivers were eventually set to expire after being brought up before the 2020-2021 school year began. That expiration date was set for Thursday, June 30, 2022.

Recently, Congress, including one of Arkansas's own passed a new legislation.

Senator John Boozman, (R) - AR, was part of a bipartisan group of legislators who introduced the "Keep Kids Fed" act, which would actually extend those waivers through the entire summer and throughout the upcoming school year.

In a statement, Senator Boozman said, "We all want to ensure children receive healthy and affordable meals to help them focus on their education. this bill will help schools provide those meals as they return to normal operations."

In Perryville, their goal has always been to get things to return to normal.

"As things begin to go back to normal, then certainly, that's a positive in itself if we get through this and get through COVID," Davis said.

The extension of the program doesn't mean that it would end after this upcoming school year. To potentially keep it going even longer, the USDA would have to approve the waivers again, but that's something that looks like it could be a real possibility.

In a statement, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said, "The deal passed by Congress will ease some of the uncertainty and provide partial relief to our schools, summer sites, and child care feeding programs."

If that were to happen, Davis says they'd be back on the program – it just wouldn't make sense not to.

"If things were to revert back to the way they were the last two or three years, we'd have no choice, we would keep rolling because that's good for everybody," Davis said. "Because it took the pressure off the district in terms of costs, but also 100% of your kids ate free, so that's wonderful."

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