BRISTOL, Va. (WJHL) – Countless businesses and organizations have felt the adverse and devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic over the past two years.
However, during this time, school lunch programs and the nonprofits that support these efforts have been able to have a greater impact on local communities. All thanks to an available waiver from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
But this exemption is due to expire at the end of June.
“We realize that the gains we have made over the past two years will disappear if we do nothing about it,” CEO and Chairman of Feeding Southwest Virginia said Pamela Irvine.
Since the early stages of the pandemic, Congress has granted the USDA the authority to waive certain requirements for school lunch programs. The main benefit, with respect to local food banks, is that organizations no longer need to provide meals in a “congregational setting” to be reimbursed by the USDA.
“We can drop off food and they can consume it, and we can go to the next place,” said the executive director of Second Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Tennessee says Rhonda Chafin. “We don’t have to bring them together in a collective meal setting.”
However, if the waiver expires in June, food banks would be required to operate under pre-COVID requirements. Chafin and Irvine said it would significantly reduce their organization’s footprint.
“We won’t be able to feed the kids – the number of kids we’ve had in the past,” Chaffin said.
“We’re going to lose 19 programs here in Southwest Virginia – 19 programs,” Irvine said. “We are going to lose 1,800 children.”
It’s a loss Irvine knows Southwest Virginia can’t accept.
“We know that the highest food insecurity numbers for children are in all ten counties here in Southwest Virginia,” she said.
The situation would be similar for their nonprofit counterparts in northeast Tennessee.
“[The schools] will not serve the children, and then it will be up to the food bank, again, to serve those 6,000 children that we have served in the past,” Chafin said.
To continue operating as they have been, Second Harvest and Feeding Southwest Virginia are asking Congress to pass the School Meals Flexibility Act. The legislation would extend the authority of the USDA to continue to waive these school lunch program requirements.
“With that [bill], we could just give a child their meals for the week and then come back a week later and give them their meals again,” Chafin said. “It’s the best, most efficient way to feed children and it’s reimbursed by the USDA – and for food banks and community agencies, it’s a win, because it’s money that we don’t have to collect to feed the children.”
Without this legislation and the extension of waivers, Chafin explained that the ability to supply and deliver meals at the same scale would be impossible.
“We can’t afford to pay for the fuel, the driver or a worker to be able to do all this work,” she said. “We can’t do it – we don’t have the resources and we don’t have the manpower.”
But, Irvine thinks congressional action can turn the tide to help ensure that thousands of children in northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia stay fed through the summer.
“We shouldn’t cut resources to feed children in order to pay for other things,” she said. “Children must be a priority.