Federal waivers that give school children and their families unprecedented access to free food in the summer months are set to expire in July.

TRI-CITIES, Tenn. (WJHL) — For the first time in two years, federal nutrition waivers through the U.S. Department of Agriculture that were designed to feed school children for free during the pandemic are set to expire at the beginning of July.

The leniency provided by these pandemic-era waivers through the federal government was one of few good things to come out of the pandemic, making it easier to feed kids in need in the summers of 2020 and 2021.

Those waivers are set to expire on June 30, 2022.

Schools and non-profits that work to feed children are now facing challenges when it comes to feeding students who need the help this summer.

It is a benefit many families have gotten used to. For the past two summers, the federal government relaxed many restrictions regarding how students can receive free food in the summer months.

For example, families were able to take food home with them and receive more than one meal’s worth of food for their child. Federal guidelines typically require the child to eat the meal on-site at a congregate location. Schools were also able to utilize the waivers to make home deliveries of food or host drive-thru feeding sites where families could pick up large boxes of food to cover several meals.

“We really hoped that that would continue; that dramatically affects the number of students that we can reach,” said Karen McGahey, the food service director for Johnson City Schools (JCS).

The upcoming ‘changes’ are better characterized as reverting back to normal policy, as those relaxed guidelines will end.

Transportation remains a major barrier for many children getting access to food in the summer when a congregate setting is required, meaning the child must travel to and from that site to eat.

The reason for relaxing the rules on a federal level in 2020 was because of the skyrocketing need during the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns.

For JCS, they say it is bad timing.

“We are very saddened that we aren’t able to continue at the higher level that we have done over the last couple of years,” said McGahey.

As the federal programs expire, the elevated need is still there.

Second Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Tennessee reports that our eight-county region of upper Northeast Tennessee is still experiencing food insecurity at rates seen during the height of the pandemic.

Kingsport City Schools leaders are concerned that without the federal waivers in place, some students will get overlooked.

“There might be a bigger need now because gas is so expensive and groceries, everything costs more,” said Jennifer Walker, the supervisor of nutrition for Kingsport City Schools.

McGahey and Walker agree — now is not the right time to remove the ease of access to free summer meals.

“We are taking away some very needed benefits to the very vulnerable and at risk population, which is our students,” said McGahey.

Schools will still provide meals this summer, but it will look different for every school district as they try to navigate the waivers expiring and how best to feed children.

Without the waivers in place, starting July 1, 2022 schools can no longer send meals home to families. They have to watch students eat them at a congregate setting, either at school or community sites.

To add to the confusion: it is not a done deal the waivers will expire. It is possible the federal government will extend them. This, however, does not give schools enough time to plan for summer feeding.

“We’re still hearing there is a possibility they could extend these waivers, but of course, all of us are planning as if they are not,” said Walker.

Second Harvest Food Bank leaders say they are worried they will not be able to feed all children in need this summer.

“At this time we do not have the resources for those summer food boxes and we are very concerned about that as well,” said Rhonda Chafin, the executive director of Second Harvest Food Bank.

The expiration of the waivers coupled with food shortages and inflation is causing a lot of stress.

“We’re hoping that those waivers will be approved on a federal level and if that is approved, it will ease the burden on this organization and help us feed more children this summer,” said Chafin.

Second Harvest argues that the relaxed method of summer feeding during the two pandemic summers of 2020 and 2021 should be the standard. However, they would settle for at least one more year of eased restrictions.

“It’s a band-aid, of course; we really wish we were able to provide meals in this way every summer to children that need it,” said Chafin.

For more on summer feeding programs through Second Harvest, click here.

Summer feeding programs in each school district

News Channel 11 contacted every city and county school district in our region to provide information on how they are approaching summer feeding programs. Below are their responses.

Johnson City Schools

This summer, food service will only be operated through the schools. Summer schools, summer edu-cares, parent pickups of meals can happen at the schools (through June) and six community programs will be hosted through the city where meals can be picked up by families. Meals can only be provided for that day, not a large box with several days supply of food like in the past.

Beginning July, breakfast and lunch meals have to be consumed on-site by the students at school at or at the established sites. Meals cannot be taken home.

For more information, contact JC Schools food service department.

Washington County, Tenn. Schools

Washington County Schools will feed all children free of charge ages 0-18 at the following sites from May 31 through June 27:

  • Boones Creek Elementary School
  • Fall Branch Elementary School
  • Gray Elementary School
  • Sulphur Springs Elementary School
  • Ridgeview Elementary School
  • Grandview Elementary School
  • West View Elementary School
  • South Central Elementary School
  • Jonesborough Elementary School
  • Lamar Elementary School

Beginning June 28 – July 22, Washington County Schools will feed all children free of charge ages 0-18 at the following sites:

  • Boones Creek Elementary School
  • Jonesborough Elementary School
  • Grandview Elementary School

More information can be found on Washington County Schools website.

Kingsport City Schools

An open/walk-in site will be hosted from May 31 through July 14 (Monday through Thursday) at Dobyns-Bennett High School. Breakfast is from 8-9:30 a.m. Lunch is from 10:30 a.m. through 1 p.m at no cost.

No meals will be served on weekends or on July 4, 2022.

Residential KCS vans will also deliver to community sites at the following locations: Allendale Falls, Reedy Pointe, Magnolia Pointe, Hillside Pointe, Kingsport West Apartments, Riverview Splash Pad, Stonecrest Apartments, and Miller View Apartments in the lunchtime hour.

Deliveries to schools for kids not attending summer school are possible but will end after June 30.

Contact Andria Ball, KCS School Nutrition Services for more at 423-378-2113.

More info on Kingsport City Schools website and on this KCS flyer.

Bristol Tennessee Schools

Bristol Schools will be providing summer meals daily in a drive-thru pick up from May 31 – July 22 at these locations:

  • Fairmount Elementary School
  • Volunteer Village
  • Sage Meadows Apartments.
  • Mountain View Apartments
  • Bristol Heights Mobile Home Park
  • Kentucky Ave. Apartments
  • Village Square Condominiums
  • Brookside Mobile Home Park

For the month of June, each child will receive a breakfast meal in additional to a lunch daily. In July, they will only be able to provide lunches to children daily. However, children that participate in enrolled day program activities, such as YMCA, YWCA, and Boys and Girls Club, will receive breakfast and lunch daily as part of their program.   

As of July 1, the district is back to normal, pre-pandemic summer programming per USDA regulations. 

For more information, contact BTCS School Nutrition Services at 423-652-9222.

Sullivan County Schools

SCS will be providing meals to those students enrolled in Summer Quest camps. The district will also have meals available for pick up for families with students or children 18 and younger. SCS will not be providing any meals during the month of July. Family involvement coordinators and the homeless coordinator are working on a resource to share with families that will detail all food distributions in our area so that families can take advantage of those opportunities.

SCS will not be requiring congregate settings for meal consumption and will continue with meal pick ups for the month of June.  

More information can be found on the SCS website.

Elizabethton City Schools

ECS is offering summer feeding for students who are enrolled in summer school.

The school system is also providing meals for pickup every Tuesday and Thursday during the month of June at Elizabethton High School starting June 2. Pickup time is from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. And child 18 and under is eligible and must be accompanied by an adult.

Meals will be served for students attending summer school only.

More information on ECS website.

Carter County Schools

Carter County Schools will be providing meals to students enrolled in the Carter County School District’s Summer Camps and ESP program this summer only.  They will feed approximately 650-700 students weekly from May 31-June 23, 2022.  These are closed sites that will only be for students enrolled in the summer programs. 

The district will not offer any drive-thru meal distribution sites. 

More information can be found on the district’s website.

Unicoi County Schools

Unicoi County is feeding breakfast and lunch to students at three schools in the county for summer school in the month of June, feeding the High School football team lunch during June workouts, and feeding YMCA day campers and staff (18 and under) breakfast and lunch during June and July. The book bus will have lunch for anyone under 18 that comes to one of the five sites on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the month of June to eat at the site or take with them, but in July they must eat at the site while enjoying a book. Lastly, UCS will be feeding the high school band breakfast and lunch during band camp in July held at the High School.   

The only difference in how the district is distributing meals between the two months is having to eat at the site of the book bus instead of being able to take it home in the month of July because of the waiver expiration.  

More information can be found online.

Johnson County Schools

Johnson County Schools plans to operate its summer food program during the month of June, very similar to last summer.  They will have two open sites where parents can pick up meals.  These two open sites will be non-congregate and located at Village Apartments from 12:10-12:30 p.m. and Rainbow Mennonite Church from 12:40-1:00 p.m.

The district is operating the summer program June 1 – June 30.

More information can be found on the district’s website.

Greeneville City Schools

The summer feeding program for 2022 will focus on feeding the students attending a GCS Summer Learning Camp. Students attending a camp will be offered/served both breakfast and lunch each day in attendance. The program will only be available to GCS students this year. There will be no curbside option. All students will eat their meals at the same school where they will be in attendance for summer learning.

Summer Learning Camps will be taking place from May 31 through June 23. There are currently no summer feeding plans in place for the month of July.

More information on GCS website.

Greene County Schools

Starting May 31, all kids and teens 18 and under can receive free meals Monday through Friday. Breakfast will be available from 7:30-8:30 a.m. and lunch is available from 11 a.m. through 12:00 p.m. each day at all Greene County schools through June 13.

Starting June 14 and through July 29, meals will be available at the following locations between 7:30-8:30 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. each day: Doak Elementary, Mosheim Elementary and South Greene High School.

Grab and go, delivery and parent-pickup of meals can no longer be offered.

For more information, contact Rebecca Thomas at 423-639-5305 or Dustin Burnette at 423-6394194, ext. 1221 or view this flyer.

Hawkins County Schools

Due to supply chain issues, Hawkins County Schools will only be offering meals to students enrolled in Summer Learning Camps May 31-June 23, 2022.

Of One Accord Ministries in Hawkins County operates a Summer Lunchbox Bus during June and July that offers daily lunch meals. Their schedule will be available on the district’s website.