U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced Monday the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will extend several flexibilities on school lunch meals through as late as December 31, 2020. The flexibilities allow summer meal program operators to continue serving free meals to all children into the fall months.
USDA noted this unprecedented move will help ensure – no matter what the situation is on-the-ground – children have access to nutritious food as the country recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic. “USDA has been and continues to be committed to using the Congressionally appropriated funding that has been made available,” the agency said in a release.
“As our nation reopens and people return to work, it remains critical our children continue to receive safe, healthy, and nutritious food. During the COVID-19 pandemic, USDA has provided an unprecedented amount of flexibilities to help schools feed kids through the school meal programs, and today, we are also extending summer meal program flexibilities for as long as we can, legally and financially,” said Perdue. “We appreciate the incredible efforts by our school foodservice professionals year in and year out, but this year we have an unprecedented situation. This extension of summer program authority will employ summer program sponsors to ensure meals are reaching all children – whether they are learning in the classroom or virtually – so they are fed and ready to learn, even in new and ever-changing learning environments.”
The summer meal program waiver extensions announced are based on current data estimations. Over the past six months, partners across the country have stood up nearly 80,000 sites, handing out meals at a higher reimbursement rate than the traditional school year program. USDA has continuously recalculated remaining appropriated funds to determine how far the agency may be able to provide waivers into the future, as Congress did not authorize enough funding for the entire 2020-2021 school year. Reporting activities are delayed due to States responding to the pandemic; however, based upon the April data USDA currently has available, Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) projects that it could offer this extension, contingent on funding, for the remaining months of 2020. “USDA will continue to actively monitor this rapidly evolving situation and continue to keep Congress informed of our current abilities and limitations.”
These flexibilities will continue to make meal service easier in a number of ways, including:
- Reducing the accounting burden on schools by providing meals to every student for free rather than forcing schools to develop a system to track and charge students who receive free, reduced price or paid meals, which could have caused families to incur meal debt.
- Allowing families to continue to pick up meals at one location rather than making parents go to different schools if they have multiple children in different school districts.
- Providing meals for every day of the week. Meals would have been reduced to only 5 days per week or less.
- Permitting community childcare organizations to continue providing meals. Many organizations like Boys and Girls Club and the YMCA are giving meals to children that are spending days there if their school is on a rotational schedule.
Collectively, these flexibilities ensure meal options for children continue to be available so children can access meals under all circumstances. USDA said it is taking this “unprecedented action” to respond to the needs of its stakeholders, who have shared concerns about continuing to reach those in need without enlisting the help of traditional summer sites located throughout communities across the US. While there have been some well-meaning people asking USDA to fund this through the entire 2020-2021 school year, we are obligated to not spend more than is appropriated by Congress.
The waiver extensions fall under the authorities Congress provided to USDA in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. Members on both sides of the aisle had asked USDA for the free school meals through 2020.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) led a delegation of 20 Republican senators urging USDA in a letter to continue to offer the flexibilities.
“I appreciate Secretary Perdue exercising the Department’s emergency authority to assist school food authorities and non-school sponsoring organizations to provide children with meals while schools begin various models of in-person and virtual classroom sessions under the COVID-19 emergency conditions,” said Roberts.
“School Nutrition Association greatly appreciates USDA addressing the critical challenges shared by our members serving students on the frontlines these first weeks of school. These waivers will allow school nutrition professionals to focus on nourishing hungry children for success, rather than scrambling to process paperwork and verify eligibility in the midst of a pandemic." said School Nutrition Assn. (SNA) President Reggie Ross, SNS. "We look forward to continuing our dialogue with USDA to ensure school meal programs are equipped to meet the future needs of America’s students.”
“Today’s announcement brings a huge relief to our school meal program and the community we serve,” said Lindsay Aguilar, RD, SNS, director of food services for Tucson Unified School District, Az. “Many of our families who might not qualify for free meals are still going through a tough time and are worried about how to keep food on the table. Now their children will have one less thing to worry about as they adjust to evolving in-school and remote learning scenarios. These waivers also eliminate a massive administrative burden for our school nutrition staff, allowing them to focus on feeding children.”
Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) said she too has been urging USDA to make this change and extend flexibilities. “Because many schools will need this certainty to continue, I encourage the Department to take the next step and extend these flexibilities for the full school year,” she added.
In a letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on August 14, Stabenow joined Rep. Robert C. "Bobby" Scott (D., Va.), chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor, to urge the USDA to take action and use its full authority to provide healthy meals to students for the duration of the school year. Perdue responded on August 20 and refused to extend waivers that allowed states and schools to more seamlessly operate through the emergency summer meal programs.
In Perdue’s response, he stated, “While we want to provide as much flexibility as local school districts need during this pandemic, the scope of this request is beyond what USDA currently has the authority to implement and would be closer to a universal school meals program which Congress has not authorized or funded. Should Congress choose to go in this direction, USDA stands ready to provide technical assistance.”