The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) today issued a broad range of flexibilities to allow school meal programs and childcare institutions across the country to return to serving healthy meals in fall 2021 as part of the Biden Administration’s commitment to reopen schools safely. Several meal service flexibilities that enable social distancing are now extended through June 30, 2022, including schools nationwide being allowed to serve meals through USDA’s National School Lunch Program Seamless Summer Option (SSO), which is typically only available during the summer months. This option not only maintains the nutrition standards of the standard school meal programs, including a strong emphasis on providing fruits and vegetables, fluid milk and whole grains, but schools that choose this option will receive higher-than-normal meal reimbursements for every meal they serve.
The School Nutrition Association (SNA), which had called for waiver extensions, applauded the move, with SNA President Reggie Ross commenting, “These waiver extensions will ensure hungry students can receive the meals they need to succeed next school year. School nutrition staff can focus on safely serving students without having to worry about meal applications or collecting payments. Families struggling to make ends meet will know their children are nourished and ready to learn.”
Under the waivers, SNA noted, school nutrition programs can maintain grab-and-go meal options and pandemic safety measures and schools can continue curbside meal pick-up services for distance learners as needed. School nutrition staff can also minimize touch points and promote social distancing in the cafeteria because they will not need to verify student eligibility for free meals.
“USDA will remain relentless in ensuring our nation’s children get the critical nutrition they need,” said USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. “States and districts wanted waivers extended to plan for safe reopening in the fall. USDA answered the call to help America’s schools and childcare institutions serve high quality meals while being responsive to their local needs as children safely return to their regular routines. This action also increases the reimbursement rate to school meal operators so they can serve healthy foods to our kids. It’s a win-win for kids, parents and schools.”
“It’s critical that our efforts to reopen schools quickly and safely include programs that provide access to free, healthy meals for our most vulnerable students, particularly those whose communities have been hardest hit by the pandemic,” added Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. “This program will ensure more students, regardless of their educational setting, can access free, healthy meals as more schools reopen their doors for in-person learning.”
USDA said it also will continue to offer targeted meal pattern flexibility and technical assistance as needed. In addition, schools and both child and adult care institutions can continue providing breakfasts, lunches and after-school snacks in non-group settings at flexible mealtimes. Parents or guardians can also pick up meals for their children when programs are not operating normally, all while maintaining social distancing consistent with federal recommendations.