The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has extended three nationwide waivers from rules for school meal programs, allowing schools to continue to feed children while supporting social distancing during the summer months.
With rules relaxed, parents and guardians across the nation can pick up meals to bring home to their children, meals can be served to children outside of the normally required group setting, and multiple days’ worth of meals can be provided at once in a “grab-and-go” manner.
The waivers, originally granted in early March, were set to expire at the end of June or when the ongoing national health emergency ends. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced on May 15 that the flexibilities will be extended to Aug. 31.
“USDA has been extremely aggressive in expanding flexibilities to ensure Americans who have been impacted by the coronavirus continue to receive the food they need for themselves and their families,” said Perdue in a statement. “As our nation reopens and people return to work, we want to continue to be flexible since there is not a one size fits all approach to feeding kids. Extending these waivers throughout the summer ensures local operators can make plans that best suit their communities and keep children fed.”
In addition to extending nationwide waivers, the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) has also allowed 26 states to operate Pandemic-EBT (P-EBT), a nutrition benefit program authorized by Congress in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. Similar to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), P-EBT provides eligible families with a one-time payment for each child who previously received free or reduced-price meals at school. The FNS is processing more requests from individual states that want to take advantage of P-EBT.
Also announced on the same day by the USDA was “Farmers to Families Food Box,” an initiative to purchase and distribute up to $3 billion of agricultural products to those in need. The USDA said it will work with regional and local distributors, whose workforce has sustained significant damage due to the closure of many restaurants, hotels, and other food service entities, to purchase fresh produce, dairy, and meat.
“It was horrifying to hear about vegetables having to be plowed under because of no markets, and milk having to be dumped, animals potentially having to be euthanized because we had broken the supply chain,” said Perdue during his visit to a Maryland produce facility to highlight the program. “And most of us didn’t realize it was a dual supply chain, one going to the food service industry and one going to the grocery stores. When that one is cut off, we had to…pivot nimbly.”