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School Lunch Could Hit Skids if Shutdown Persists

UPDATED

So unless you've been living under a rock, you know that the White House and congressional Republicans have actually started talking to each other, about maybe, possibly ending the government shutdown, although there was no final deal yet as of Friday afternoon. 

The move can't come soon enough for one key program that K-12 schools depend on federal money for: school lunch.

Quick primer on that program works: Schools are "reimbursed" by the feds for some portion of their expenditures on a monthly basis. That's why there hasn't been a major disruption in October—schools already had the necessary cash on hand.

But if the current talks are somehow scuttled and the shutdown—in its 11th day as of Friday—were to drag on until November, things could get considerably dicier, according to the School Nutrition Association. States are allowed to carry forward a portion of their funds from past fiscal years (fiscal year 2013 in this case) into a new fiscal year (fiscal year 2014, which started on Oct. 1, otherwise known as the day the government closed its doors).

It's unclear at this point which states have the cash they'll need to keep feeding students into November. The SNA has been trying to get answers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but information has been slow-going (maybe that has something to do with the fact that a lot of employees are stuck at home, on furlough).  But at least one state, Texas, has already said it may not have enough cash hand to cover meals that were served beyond Oct. 4—which means essentially, the money is out by early November. 

And the Lone Star State may not be, well, alone on this, said Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokeswoman for SNA.

"Districts that have little in reserves depend on getting an  on-time and complete reimbursement," she said. "We're not getting clear news from USDA that they're going to have enough funding available to provide complete October reimbursements."

Meanwhile, school lunch isn't the only nutrition slated to run out of money soon. Funding for food stamps could also run out if the shutdown drags on, reports my colleague, Ross Brenneman, of Rules for Engagement fame. And the WIC program, which helps provide meals to low-income families with very young children, is also on thin ice, according to this great stateline.org story

UPDATE: According to a memo released late Friday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers federal school lunch assistance, the program has enough money to continue to cover the cost of student meals "for several months" into the current fiscal year, even without congressional action.

Education advocates breathed a sigh of relief, even as they noted that USDA didn't say, specifically, when funding for school meals would run out.

"We're relieved to see USDA announce that funding is available to cover [another month's] expenses," said Pratt-Heavner But she still wishes that communication had been more clear from the jump. "I think this is a situation of there was so little information being handed out" that state agencies became confused. 

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