Today in an unprecedented move meant to help ensure “no matter what the situation is on-the-ground, children have access to nutritious food as the country recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will extend several flexibilities through as late as Dec. 31, 2020.
“Today, we are extending summer meal program flexibilities for as long as we can, legally and financially,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a statement. “As our nation reopens and people return to work, it remains critical our children continue to receive safe, healthy and nutritious food.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, USDA has provided a never-seen-before amount of flexibilities to help schools feed kids through school meal programs, with summer meal programs coming in clutch. Perdue acknowledged “the incredible efforts by our school foodservice professionals year in and year out, but this year we have an unprecedented situation.”
The extension of summer meal program authority aims to ensure meals can reach 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,” Perdue said.
Some details: USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) is extending a suite of nationwide waivers for the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and Seamless Summer Option (SSO) through the end of 2020, or until available funding runs out. These waivers include allowing SFSP and SSO meals to be served in all areas and at no cost; permitting meals to be served outside of typically required group settings and meal times; waiving meal pattern requirements if necessary and allowing parents or guardians to pick up meals.
“These waivers will ensure every hungry child in the city of Cleveland has access to healthy school meals, while eliminating the burdensome, time consuming process of verifying and documenting enrollment,” says Chris Burkhardt, SNS, executive director of school nutrition for Cleveland Metropolitan School District in Ohio, where the foodservice team had begun implementing a bar code verification system “that has greatly complicated and slowed service.”
In Cleveland, the new waivers will mean “we’ll be able to speed up meal distribution for the safety of staff and families and ensure no student is denied access to healthy meals,” Burkhardt adds.
Perdue and the USDA caution the waiver extensions announced today are based on current data estimations and recalculations of appropriated funds. Also, Congress did not authorize enough funding for the entire school year. Despite this, K-12 directors feel relieved.
“Today’s announcement brings a huge relief to our school meal program and the community we serve,” says Lindsay Aguilar, RD, SNS, director of food services for Tucson Unified School District in Arizona. “Many of our families who might not qualify for free meals are still going through a tough time and are worried about how to keep food on the tables. Now their children will have one less thing to worry about as they adjust to evolving in-school and remote learning scenarios. These waivers also eliminate a massive burden for our school nutrition staff, allowing them to focus on feeding children.”
School Nutrition Association (SNA) President Reggie Ross, SNS, echoed that sentiment, saying the waivers “will allow school nutrition professionals to focus on nourishing hungry children for success, rather than scrambling to process paperwork and verify eligibility in the midst of a pandemic.”
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