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Lawmakers Seek to Protect Access to School Meals Amid Coronavirus Outbreak

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 11, 2020 3 min read
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See all of our coverage of coronavirus and schools here

Members of Congress have introduced bills designed to ensure that students who rely on federally subsidized school meals can still receive them amid school closures related to the spread of novel coronavirus.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., introduced the Maintaining Essential Access to Lunch for Students Act (MEALS) Act, which would remove a requirement that prevents the U.S. Department of Agriculture from granting state waiver requests related to the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act if those waivers would increase costs for the federal government. And the COVID-19 Child Nutrition Response Act from Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., and Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., would allow school officials to serve meals in a variety of settings through a new nationwide waiver authority. Both bills were announced on Tuesday.

One the of the biggest dilemmas facing schools that must shut down in the face of the coronavirus is how to ensure students can still eat the meals they are normally served at schools. As Education Week’s Corey Mitchell reported earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced new flexibility concerning how schools can feed students during unexpected closures. The Agriculture Department noted that it has the authority to waive the requirement that meals be served in a group setting, “which is vital during a social distancing situation” that incidents like the spread of the coronavirus might require. And it has already approved waivers from California and Washington state to allow meals to be served during closures.

See Also: Education Week’s Map of Coronavirus and School Closures

But schools might still face a lot of uncertainty about how to proceed in a situation where basic programs like meal services can be crucial. “Schools have become such a hub of nutrition,” Washington state Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal told Education Week. Major issues include how to deliver food to students and what to do if school lunchrooms are shut down.

“Twenty-two million children rely on federal subsidized meals. For many kids, it is the only meal they get each day,” Omar said in a statement announcing her bill. “It is our responsibility to ensure that kids continue to get the meals they need.”

And in his own statement, Comer said his bipartisan legislation with Bonamici would “ensure that our schools and food service programs have plenty of flexibility to continue providing nutritious meals to students in need.”

As of mid-day March 11, 1,251 schools had closed or were scheduled to close in response to the coronavirus, affecting 856,520 students, according to Education Week (some of those schools had subsequently reopened).

Other avenues for maintaining meal access are being explored and discussed. For example, Mary Kusler, the senior director at the National Education Association’s Center for Advocacy, said the federal government should consider lowering the current threshold for “community eligibility” for school meals to help schools impacted by the virus. This community-eligibility provision allows high-poverty schools and districts to provide free meals to all of their students without requiring income verification from their families, if at least 40 percent of students are identified as qualifying for other federal income-based programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (commonly known as SNAP).

The goal, Kusler said in an interview, should be to ease federal rules “so we’re feeding all kids in schools, not just some.” Kusler noted that Congress would have to approve such a change to community eligibility.

Photo: A server places breakfast out in the cafeteria at Kyrene De Las Lomas Elementary School in Phoenix. As more schools close over coronavirus concerns, districts are wrestling with how they will pay employees should people fall ill, be required to be in quarantine, or if there’s a prolonged shutdown. (AP Photo/Matt York)