On the heels of a letter from 19 U.S. Senators urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide schools with “flexibility” regarding school lunches and child nutrition and with children across the country returning to school both in-person and virtually, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced Aug. 31 that the USDA is extending the free school lunch program potentially through the end of the year.
In an Aug. 31 news release, the USDA said the flexibilities will allow summer meal program operators to continue serving free meals to all children into the fall months, helping ensure children have access to nutritious food as the country recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the news release, USDA said it “has been and continues to be committed to using the Congressionally appropriated funding that has been made available,” and that it was extending summer meal program flexibilities “for as long as we can, legally and financially.”
“As our nation reopens and people return to work, it remains critical our children continue to receive safe, healthy, and nutritious food,” Perdue said. “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.”
In a Sept. 1 email to parents, the Eau Claire School District said, “We are excited to announce that, with the support of the USDA, our ECASD Food and Nutrition Department is able to continue to offer free breakfast and lunch to children age 18 and under who live in our school district. In addition, students who eat school breakfast or lunch (not including a la carte when available) when at school in their cohorts will also be provided with those meals at no cost.”
The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service extension includes:
• Allowing Summer Food Service Program and Seamless Summer Option meals to be served in all areas and at no cost;
• Permitting meals to be served outside of the typically-required group settings and meal times;
• Waiving meal pattern requirements as necessary; and
• Allowing parents and guardians to pick-up meals for their children.
“Collectively, these flexibilities ensure meal options for children continue to be available so children can access meals under all circumstances,” the USDA said in a news release. “USDA 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.”
On Aug. 17, Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, who chairs the Senate Committee on Agricultural, Nutrition and Forestry, sent Purdue a letter co-signed by Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the committee’s ranking Democrat, and 18 other U.S. Senators requesting the school lunch program continue into the school year.
“As the school year begins, the challenges brought on by the COVID emergency persist. 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,” the letter said. “During this COVID emergency, we ask USDA to utilize program flexibilities, grants or reimbursements that assist school food authorities with procuring, preparing, and serving meals in a manner consistent with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID-19 school re-opening guidelines and that support non-school sponsors providing meals to children on remote-learning days or when in-classroom learning is unavailable.”
According to the USDA, 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 we may be able to provide waivers into the future, as Congress did not authorize enough funding for the entire 2020-2021 school year,” the news release said. “Reporting activities are delayed due to States responding to the pandemic; however based upon the April data we currently have available, 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.”