Free school lunches provided a lifeline to thousands of Washington families during last spring’s coronavirus chaos. For some children, it was the only food they had some days.

As a new school year approaches, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s decision not to continue allowing schools broad flexibility in breakfast and lunch delivery is a stingy and shortsighted move.

State and school officials are asking USDA to reconsider or for Congress to intervene to extend the school lunch waivers. Whoever acts, children need this important service.

Bogging down school-lunch delivery with bureaucratic box-checking will keep food out of the hands of hungry children. During these uncertain times, struggling Washington parents should not have to wonder whether their kids will have access to healthy, nutritious meals.

When school buildings closed last March, federal officials relaxed school-lunch reporting and monitoring rules to enable districts to provide healthy meals to all children who wanted them, regardless of income or whether they were enrolled in a particular school.

This allowed districts to set up meal distribution points that kept bellies fed while minimizing the risk of transmitting the virus. Across the state during the health-related emergency school closure, schools distributed more than 28 million meals, state education officials say.

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This fall, the USDA wants school-lunch programs to return to “business as usual” — imposing a three-tiered pricing model based on family income that tracks individual students’ purchases.

That system works well enough during regular school years but is unfairly cumbersome during this time of remote learning and extraordinary need.

As Highline School District Superintendent Susan Enfield said, “It’s beyond complicated. It’s cruel and unnecessary.”

Highline schools will have given away 325,000 meals between March and the end of this week, according to district figures. Enfield said on several occasions, families told her those meals were the only food they had.

“We have real fears that kids are going to go hungry” if the waiver isn’t extended, she said in an interview. Those fears appear well founded.

Hunger has skyrocketed in Washington as layoffs and work cutbacks continue to strain family budgets. About one in five Washington households with children report having unreliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food, according to a Northwestern University analysis of weekly Census household surveys. That’s nearly double the food-insecurity rate from last year.

Food bank visits are up an average of 50% during the pandemic, according to Northwest Harvest. The statewide hunger-relief agency anticipates the need will only increase now that enhanced unemployment benefits have expired.

During these extraordinary times, it would be ludicrous to impose building-based pricing standards on school-meal programs. The risk of letting students go hungry is too heavy a price to pay to make up the cost of a lunch.