The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which administers the nation’s school meal programs, is acting to make it easier to provide food to low-income kids, as schools from Seattle to New York City close over the threat of COVID-19.
“If schools are closed, we are going to do the very best we can with the tools we have to get those kids fed,” said the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue on Monday afternoon at the School Nutrition Association’s (SNA) legislative conference, where food service and nutrition professionals discussed how to feed students, especially those from low-income households, during coronavirus-related shutdowns.
In a March 5 letter to Perdue, the SNA asked the USDA to waive the requirements for congregate feeding to allow grab-and-go services; expand eligibility for the Summer Food Service Program; and allow schools to deliver meals to multiple satellite sites throughout their communities, so that families are less dependent on public transportation to get food.
“We’re going to be as flexible as we absolutely can with the regulations that Food and Nutrition Services have,” Perdue responded when SNA’s leadership addressed those proposals with him.
Over the weekend, the department has approved waiver requests by the states of Washington and California to allow meal service during school closures. Those meals are available through June 30 at no cost to low-income children, and are not required to be served in a group setting. Other states have also been notified of the opportunity to request waivers related to meal service during these unanticipated closures.
In recent years, the USDA maintained a good record of easing the rules to help school children get their much-needed food during disasters and emergencies. After the floods hit Nebraska in March 2019, the USDA approved the state’s request for temporary flexibility in meeting school lunch meal pattern requirements. Similarly, in September 2017, when smoke from wildfires in Oregon became so thick that it shut down nearby schools, the department allowed children to take meals home instead of eating them on school sites.
In response to the spread of coronavirus, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that schools maintain their meal programs but also “consider ways to distribute food.”
“If there is community spread of COVID-19, design strategies to avoid distribution in settings where people might gather in a group or crowd,” the CDC advises. “Consider options such as ‘grab-and-go’ bagged lunches or meal delivery.”