The U.S. Department of Agriculture will not extend a key waiver from federal school meal requirements that has given schools and community groups more flexibility to feed students during unprecedented interruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Anti-hunger groups, education organizations, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle had pressed the agency to allow school meal programs to continue operating under summer meal program rules as schools continue to balance rolling shutdowns, periods of remote learning, and hybrid schedules caused by the pandemic.
Those summer meal rules— the Summer Food Service Program and the Seamless Summer Options— present fewer restrictions on how schools can serve meals and who they can serve them to. And they allow qualifying community organizations, like youth centers, to receive federal reimbursements to provide meals to children in their areas. That has allowed collaboration between schools and community groups to feed hungry children and for families to pick up meals at a variety of locations, not just the schools where their children are enrolled.
But U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in an Aug. 20 letter to federal lawmakers that his agency will require schools to transition back to the requirements of the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs. The agency has extended some separate waivers from those requirements through the 2020-21 school year, but the summer meal authority will lapse as the new school year begins.
“Americans are a generous people, and there are already opportunities for breakfast, lunch, and snacks, and weekend meals for children in need,” Perdue wrote, adding that he doesn’t believe he has the authority to leave the summer rules in place and that doing so “would be closer to a universal school meals program, which Congress has not authorized or funded.”
The shift comes as the Trump administration urges schools to reopen for in-person instruction, even as rates of coronavirus cases surge in some areas. The administration seems to draw a distinction between the emergency closures that quickly shutdown schools nationwide in the spring and districts’ plans to start the school year remotely as a precaution.
Need for Flexibility
Those summer flexibilities are key to helping schools address growing child hunger concerns during the national crisis, said an Aug. 17 letter from Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas and and 19 other Senate Republicans.
“As the school year begins, the challenges brought on by the COVID emergency persist,” the letter says. “We encourage continued use of the child nutrition program waiver authority ably used thus far to assist school food authorities and non-school sponsoring organizations who work collaboratively to provide children meals while schools explore various and blended models of in-person and virtual classroom sessions.”
Senate Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Rep. Bobby Scott, R-Va., also previously wrote in support of extending the waiver, as did a group of 1,315 national, state, and local organizations.
“With rates of food insecurity rising due to COVID-19 and many school districts implementing fully remote school models, communities urgently need additional flexibility to efficiently and easily provide meals to children at school, to send meals home with children when they are not at school, and to provide meals at community sites closer to children’s homes,” that letter says.
Stabenow and Scott argued the USDA has the authority to extend the waiver under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which Congress passed in the early days of the pandemic.
As rates of poverty, joblessness, and child hunger shift dramatically during the ongoing economic crisis, some schools fear more limitations on their meal programs will make it harder to serve vulnerable children.
“Here’s one practical implication,” the House Education and Labor Committee tweeted. “Once this waiver expires, a parent with three kids of different ages who attend different schools will have to go to each school every day to pick up a meal for their children.”
Some Waivers Already Extended
In June, Perdue extended some other flexibilities that are designed to make it easier for schools to continue distributing student meals, even as they close buildings or modify operations in response to COVID-19. He had already expanded those waivers, initially set to expire June 30, until Aug. 31. They are now in effect until June 30, 2021.
The temporary rule changes Perdue extended:
- Allow for non-congregate feeding, which means schools can serve meals outside of the normally-required group settings to support social distancing.
- Waive a rule that children must be present when parents pick up grab-and-go meals for them.
- Waive requirements related to standard serving times, allowing more flexibility for mass distribution.
Perdue also added a new waiver to the list: Schools can pause the “offer versus serve” rule that allows high school students to take or leave some food items offered as part of a meal. That rule, designed to cut back on food waste, may be difficult to carry out in pre-packaged meal distribution.
Photo: Siu Chen helps distribute free and reduced lunch during the first day of classes in Broward County at Discovery Elementary School in Sunrise, Fla., Aug. 19. Although all classes will be held remotely due to COVID-19, parents can still pick up free or reduced lunch at various schools around the county. (Matias J. Ocner/Miami Herald via AP)