SHELBY, Mich. (WOOD) — It has been more than two years since the first cases of COVID-19 were found in Michigan. But after a strict shutdown to try and curb cases and a vaccine rollout campaign, things are mostly back to normal.

No more mandatory masks in schools or grocery stores, no more mandatory social distancing and relaxed action from the federal government. But some school officials and nonprofit organizers are sounding the alarm, saying it’s too soon to “go back to normal” — that the impact of the pandemic is nowhere near over.

The primary concern for Mindy Grant? Kids going hungry.

“Everyone has been eating for free for the last two years. But going back to school in the fall, that’s no longer the case,” Grant told News 8.

Grant serves as the senior program manager for No Kid Hungry Michigan, an organization that works with school districts and community programs across the state that help families in need of food.

Mary Rose Vanas, center, is hailed a “hunger hero” by No Kid Hungry Michigan for her role in helping people in Oceana County find access to free food. (Courtesy No Kid Hungry Michigan)

Through the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture feeds approximately 30 million kids per day. At the start of the pandemic, when many schools were closed to prevent the virus from spreading, the USDA issued waivers covering the costs for those programs, so all students had access to meals, not only ones from a low-income households.

Barring any intervention from lawmakers, those waivers will expire at the end of June, and food programs will need to follow a lot more rules that will make it harder to connect with hungry kids. For Michigan, the waivers ended on the last day of each district’s school year.

Grant says there will be two big changes — including eligibility.

“In order for a school or organization to serve summer meals they have to have at least 50% of their census or student population (qualify for) free or reduced meals. If they don’t meet those criteria, they’re not allowed to provide free meals this summer to students,” Grant said. “With the waivers in place, as they have been the last couple of years, that area eligibility waiver meant that any school or community organization was able to serve kids. And that’s really important because we know hunger doesn’t just exist in those 50%-or-more free and reduced districts. Hunger is everywhere.”

The other big change is a requirement for congregate feeding.

“Congregate feeding means kids have to come together to get the meal and eat the meal on-site,” Grant said. “During the pandemic, kids could come and grab and go and take their meal wherever they wanted. Parents could come and they could pick up multiple meals at the same time — five- or seven-days’ worth of breakfast and five- or seven-days’ worth of lunch.”

Mary Rosa Vanas, the Food Service Director for Shelby Public Schools, left, poses with a group of volunteers as they handle a delivery of free food to be disperse to students and other community nonprofit groups. (Courtesy No Kid Hungry Michigan)

For small, rural areas like Shelby in Oceana County, the congregate feeding requirement is a major hurdle. Mary Rose Vanas, the Food Service Director for Shelby Public Schools, says the back-and-forth in her community, especially with sky-high gas prices, is going to prevent people from accessing food.

“The majority of people who are in the school district live five to seven miles from the school,” Vanas told News 8. “If you have to come into the school for breakfast every single day, you’re driving five miles there and five miles home. And then you would have to drive in again for lunch and go back home again. There are parents who won’t be able to do it.”

For Vanas, organizing to keep her students fed has been hard enough. In April 2020, the USDA announced the Farmers to Families Food Box program, a commitment to buy $3 billion worth of food to be donated to programs and schools across the country. But for that food to make it to Shelby, Vanas had to go above and beyond.

“If you look at Shelby, I have maybe 1,400 kids in the district. And if you brought me what I needed just for my kids, it’s not worthwhile,” Vanas said. “I talked with the USDA, and they told me that they (would only come if I took) two truckloads. So, I reached out to our local community in the surrounding areas: churches, clubs, anyone who was a 501C3 that would be allowed to accept federal products to give out to the people in their local community.”

To appease the USDA, Vanas recruited more than 25 other organizations to take part, showing up at 5:30 a.m. on delivery days to stock their pantries. With Vanas providing for so many community groups, that same community stepped in to back her up.

“We were not geared to have two semi-trucks full of fruits and vegetables on our doorstep,” Vanas said. “No Kid Hungry gave us a grant and ordered a forklift truck and a box truck. One of our local freezer companies, Peterson Farms, they lent us two (trucks). One was refrigerated and one was a freezer truck, which meant we had the storage capacity to do that.”

People line up at Shelby High School to collect some free food covered by the USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box program. (Courtesy No Kid Hungry Michigan)

U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, partnered with U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, has introduced a bill to extend those waivers, but so far, the “Support Kids Not Red-Tape Act” hasn’t gotten much traction.

“As we come out of this pandemic, schools are doing their best — but it takes time for them to transition back to their operations before COVID. We can’t let hungry kids get caught in the middle,” Stabenow said in a statement.

Grant isn’t optimistic the waivers will get extended.

“My understanding is that there’s nothing to tie that to. There’s no package to tie that to, and it doesn’t stand alone,” Grant said. “It’s great that she’s trying, and we appreciate that, but I think we need to just keep pushing and keep pushing for everybody to get on the same page until it happens.”