U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Sonny Perdue has announced that the requirement to serve meals in group settings is being waived for schools providing meals to students affected by school closures due to coronavirus concerns. Perdue’s announcement is effective immediately and will cover efforts triggered by school closings through June 30, 2020.
Perdue made the announcement while testifying before the House Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, noting that requiring congregate dining at a time when schools are closing specifically to prevent a lot of close contact would “not make sense.”
Generally, during an unexpected school closure, schools can leverage their participation in one of USDA’s summer meal programs to provide meals at no cost to students, but those meals must be served in a group setting. However, in a public health emergency, the law gives USDA the authority to waive the group setting meal requirement, which is vital during a social distancing situation.
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States can also request waivers of other USDA school meal program requirements, as needed, by providing their USDA Food & Nutrition Services (FNS) Regional Office with the required waiver information, and these will be considered on a case-by-case basis, the USDA adds. Information on how to submit a waiver request is available here or through Regional Offices. Perdue said that such requests would be facilitated. “We have pre-emptively sent the message to all the states that they can assume a positive response,” he said, but the statute requires that the USDA must be asked first.
Speaking to a group of 850 child nutrition professionals at the School Nutrition Association’s (SNA) Legislative Action Conference (LAC) yesterday, Purdue said the USDA would be moving fast on these waiver requests. “This is not the speed of the government that you’re used to. This is Sonny time. Fast and friendly,” he said, adding that one waiver from California was submitted Friday and approved the same day.
All FNS programs, including the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs as well as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), have flexibilities and contingencies built-in to allow them to respond in the event of a disaster or emergency situation and protocols have also been established specifically about the coronavirus response across USDA.
Child Nutrition Reauthorization
In other news, Food Management asked Perdue yesterday if he thought Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) would happen this year. The last time CNR was taken up with 10 years ago; Congress by law is supposed to reauthorize the programs every five years. Perdue, however, wasn’t hopeful Congress would take up CNR.
“I hear it mentioned,” he said. “I think it would be a good time to do that, but I don’t know how much progress we’ll make.”
When asked if the USDA was trying to take the action to subvert Congress’ inaction, he said that the 1996 Farm Bill allowed the USDA secretary the ability to create waivers and rules. The USDA last month issued a proposed rule that would allow for what it calls “flexibilities."
While some have said that the proposed rule would make school meals less healthy, Perdue fight bought against that notion.
“I haven’t met a school lunch professional that didn’t want to see kids eat and eat healthy,” he said yesterday at LAC. “I have no problem with the flexibilities here. It just gives the ability to have the options of flexibilities to get things done. We are not a cookie cutter nation. People who write those rules had in mind some particular thing. I don’t think they were intentional in doing that, but there are different school systems out there. This is a common sense kinda thing that’s build on trust. Your folks across the country have not let us down.”
Perdue said he was surprised by the backlash to the proposed rules, for which a commenting period is available until later this month. “If we can do anything in a bipartisan why, shouldn’t it be about feeding kids,” he asked.
Labor and SNAP
Perdue was also asked yesterday about supply chain issues in regard to coronavirus.
He said he didn’t believe there would be an impact to the upcoming harvest season due to coronavirus, saying, “We have not seen [labor issues] from a coronavirus perspective. Certainly, where most of our [farm] labor comes from has not been a hotbed of outbreaks from Mexico or Central America. So I’m hoping that we won’t see that impact.”
He also made clear the spread of the virus has not been found through food.
“We’re getting a lot of questions about the transmission of the coronavirus on food,” he said. “There is no evidence that there is any kind of problem with transmissibility on food from coronavirus. Or pets. He says that’s even from prepared food from places like restaurants.
He also mentioned that if unemployment numbers began to dip from a recession, particularly as the stock markets crashed on Monday, that Congress has given the USDA waiver capabilities for SNAP benefits. He said they have received some labor market issues waivers already but they he does not know that those were in relation to coronavirus.