USDA Extends Free School Meals Program Through End of School Year

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2020 has been a bad year for many millions if not billions of people worldwide. Here in the US, the pandemic has deepend America’s existing hunger crisis, with one report suggesting that 29 million American adults sometimes or often did not have enough to eat, up from eight million in 2018.

Children aren’t exempt from these challenges, either. Even in “normal” times, far too many of them rely on free or reduced price school lunch programs in order to stay fed and focused in the classroom, and the ranks of hungry students has surely swelled amid the economic and logistical challenges of the pandemic.

That’s why it’s welcome news that the US Department of Agriculture recently declared that schools can keep offering free meals to students for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year—regardless of where those students are learning.

The welcome news comes after the passage of a continuing resolution signed by President Trump, which allowed the USDA to extend child nutrition waivers through the end of June 2021, rather than letting them expire in December 2020. In essence, schools can continue using the Summer Food Service Program and Seamless Summer Option, two methods that allow schools to distribute free meals outside of traditional school eating hours that can also be picked up by parents or guardians, with the USDA reimbursing schools on the back end.

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With an ongoing emphasis on remote learning (to one extent or another) in various parts of the country, the USDA notes that the continuity of these programs will allow schools and communities to “operate a meal service model that best meets their community’s unique needs,” which often means letting parents pick up multiple days of no-cost meals at once.

Even more crucially, the program makes it possible for a much wider range of students and families to access food at a time of increased economic hardship. Normally, schools charge students from households with an income greater than 130% of the federal poverty line— and institute controversial “lunch debt” for those who don’t qualify but can’t pay up. Since the pandemic, however, the USDA waived such requirements, transforming schools into food pantries that’ll now function as such until at least July 1st of 2021.

For the School Nutrition Association, an organization representing school nutrition directors, the extension provides a tangible sense of relief.

"These waiver extensions are great news for America’s students and the school nutrition professionals working so hard to support them throughout this pandemic," SNA President Reggie Ross said in a press release. "School meal programs can remain focused on safely meeting nutritional needs of children in their communities without having to worry about burdensome regulations."

There’s not a lot of great news out there these days, but the extension of these waivers provides a rare bright spot for millions of people coping with unprecedented hardship. No matter where or how kids are learning this year, there’s no reason why they should be allowed to go hungry. 

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