In spite of pressure from anti-hunger groups, education organizations and lawmakers on both sides, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced it will not extend a key waiver from federal school meal requirements that has given schools and community groups more flexibility to feed students during the coronavirus pandemic.
Summer meal program rules—the Summer Food Service Program and the Seamless Summer Options—make it easier for schools to serve meals by placing fewer restrictions on how it’s done and who can be served meals. The summer rules also allow non-school locations like youth centers to receive federal reimbursements to provide meals to children in their areas, allowing collaborations between schools and community groups to feed those in need in more places.
While the USDA had extended some separate waivers from requirements of the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs through this school year (non-congregate feeding is allowed, a parent or guardian can pick up meals and serving time flexibility is still in place), but the summer meal rules lawmakers are calling “key” are set to lapse as the new school year begins, according to an Aug. 20 letter from U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to federal lawmakers.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas and 19 other Senate Republicans said in an Aug. 17 letter that just because school is beginning, the issues brought on by the COVID crisis have not ended. Those include rates of poverty, joblessness and child hunger, intersectional with the ongoing economic crisis.
“As the school year begins, the challenges brought on by the COVID emergency persist,” the letter from Senate Republicans says. “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.”
Perdue wrote in his letter he doesn’t believe he has the authority to leave summer meal rules in place, which he says, “would be closer to a universal school meals program, which Congress has not authorized or funded.”
Senate Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., counter in another letter that the summer flexibilities are key to school districts navigating this challenging, unprecedented school year.
“With rates of food insecurity rising due to COVID-10 and many school districts implementing fully remote school models, communities urgently need additional flexibility to efficiently and easily provide meals to children at school, to send meals home with children when they are not at school and to provide meals at community sites closer to children’s homes,” the letter reads. Stabenow and Scott argued that the USDA does have the authority to extend the summer rules under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, passed by Congress in the early days of the pandemic.
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