Pandemic-era federal waivers guaranteeing free meals for all children will expire in July, marking a big change before school begins this fall.

TRI-CITIES, Tenn. (WJHL) — At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government through the U.S. Department of Agriculture created waivers to change the rules regarding who receives free or reduced meals at schools nationwide.

The waivers made it to where every student qualified to eat for free at school, without the need for an application or direct qualification under the existing parameters to determine a family’s financial need.

The pandemic-era waivers are set to expire on June 30. If they are not extended, it will mean big changes this fall at schools nationwide.

“All of the rules go back to the way they were before,” said Karen McGahey, food service director for Johnson City Schools. “If students or families feel there is a need and want to apply for meal benefits they will have to complete an application.”

For the past two years those applications have not been required, any student could get free breakfast and lunch at school in light of heightened need during the pandemic.

With a return to normal set for this fall, it is a change school districts are reluctant to embrace.

“We have for years lobbied and hoped for universal meals for all children. We just feel that that should be a safety net,” said McGahey.

News Channel 11 contacted every city and county school system in the Tri-Cities region. Each school nutrition director responded that they want the waivers to be extended, guaranteeing students will have access to free meals.

“Personally I wish that we could just continue this program and continue to offer meals at schools for all kids. If they are hungry, they are not going to learn,” said Jennifer Walker, supervisor of nutrition for Kingsport City Schools.

The school districts got that wish for the past two years, but now leaders fear the timeline is too rushed to properly warn parents of the looming changes.

“I am concerned there has not been enough communication to families for them to understand the meals won’t be there when their kids go back to school,” said Walker.

It is possible the federal government could choose to extend the USDA waivers. This means that free meals might be available for all students this fall. However, school districts are forced to plan as if they are not, and the benefits are going away.

“That would be wonderful if the waivers were extended and we could start the year back with all students eating at no cost,” said McGahey.

Until an answer is known, school system leaders are urging families to make sure to apply for benefits this summer or at the start of the school year in August if your child could qualify for free or reduced lunch.

“I am disappointed that Congress did not allow USDA the opportunity to continue the SSO waiver through 2022-23 school year.  This waiver allowed all students to eat breakfast and lunch at no cost regardless of income.  As of right now, that is not the case,” said Lindsey Feathers, Director of School Nutrition for Carter County Schools.

Leaders expect many more families will be in need than in years past due to high costs of food and gas amid rising inflation.

“We anticipate that the numbers will jump up,” said McGahey.

However, they fear many parents will not apply because for the past two years they have not had to. Leaders worry this means students will not get the benefits they need.

“I am concerned about next year and what that means for our families,” said Walker.

Beverly W. Miller, Assistant Director of Schools for Administration for Greeneville City Schools, agrees.

“I fear this will result in low participation and completion of the federal (required) free/reduced meal applications. Greeneville City Schools firmly believes that all children deserve to eat a healthy, nutritious breakfast and lunch daily, and we are committed to making that happen,” said Miller.

The message from the school systems is to make sure if you believe you could qualify for free or reduced lunch for your child, do not forget to apply this summer or at the start of the school year.

The only exceptions are for families who receive SNAP benefits or food stamps already, those children automatically qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Some schools in local districts are CEP qualified, which means all students are automatically enrolled for free meals due to the school being in an area that is economically disadvantaged. Families at those schools do not need to apply.