Recently appointed USDA Secretary Thomas Vilsack addressed the virtual School Nutrition Association (SNA) Legislative Action Conference on March 8, announcing the extension of USDA waivers through Sept. 30, 2021, that will allow all children to continue to receive free meals through the Summer Food Service Program and Seamless Summer Option. The waivers allow meals to be served outside of normally required group settings and meal times and allow parents and guardians to pick up the meals, including bulk packs of multiple meals. They were last extended through June 30, 2021, in October.
In his brief address to the SNA community, Vilsack started by thanking school nutrition professionals for the work they’ve done in keeping children fed over the course of the pandemic.
“You have been on the front line of this battle against COVID-19,” he said. “Your lives have been turned upside down and yet you have been able to meet the challenge to be able to provide nutrition assistance and help to children at schools when school was in session and to families when it was not in session, so I wanted to take the opportunity to thank you and to acknowledge the incredible work you all have done under amazingly complex circumstances.”
In addition to announcing the current extension through next summer, Vilsack promised to explore further extensions.
“Over the course of the next several weeks, we’re going to look at whether or not there can be a further extension across the school year for 2021-22,” he said. “We hope to be able to make some decisions on that sometime in the month of April.”
In recognizing the importance of school nutrition professionals, Vilsack noted that they would be among those considered vital to reopening schools and therefore will be among those prioritized for vaccination. “The president is interested in utilizing the federal pharmacy program, which basically will expand and prioritize vaccinations for assistant school nutrition workers to be able to receive the vaccine,” he said.
Vilsack also emphasized that the goals of the administration go beyond simply providing food to providing healthy food and nutrition.
“Today we have an incredibly high number of our children who are obese, and 71% of American adults are overweight or obese,” he noted, adding that because of that, the Medicare and Medicaid programs spend $160 billion annually on “just treating diabetes,” which is related to poor diets and is more than the budget of the USDA.
“So it’s critically important that we focus not just on food insecurity but that we also look for ways that we can improve the healthy choices that our children and all of us have,” Vilsack said. “We will continue to work in this area and want to work in partnership with you.”
Prior to Vilsack’s speech, the conference was addressed by Sarah Smith-Holmes, acting deputy administrator for child nutrition organizations for the USDA’s Food & Nutrition Services, and by Laura Castro—director of the USDA’s food distribution division. Smith-Holmes announced the USDA’s extension of waivers that Vilsack later elaborated on.