School meal assistance proposals in House coronavirus response act

UPDATE: March 12, 2020: After discussion among lawmakers, all three pieces of legislation will be included in The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, a larger package the House will vote on Thursday in response to the coronavirus outbreak. The package is expected to pass.​

Dive Brief:

  • Members of the House Committee on Education and Labor are introducing today three proposals for meal assistance for schools closed or transitioned to remote learning due to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak. An aide says the proposals are expected to pass the full House.
  • One bipartisan proposal led by Reps. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Oregon) and James Comer (R-Kentucky) would create a nationwide waiver authority to allow school officials to distribute food in any number of settings across all nutrition programs. It would also allow for flexibility on what’s included in meals if the food supply or procurement are disrupted. The flexibilities would apply to schools that have closed due to COVID-19 and those that have transitioned to remote learning. 
  • The second bill, led by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota), would allow the U.S. Department of Agriculture to approve state waiver requests for meal distrubution even if they result in increased costs to the federal government. Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Virginia) is also expected to introduce a bill that would ensure low-income families don’t lose access to basic essentials under pandemic adjustments being made to the electronic benefit transfer program. These two bills would also allow more flexibility for school meal distribution and make it easier for families to access food assistance benefits. 

Dive Insight:

​Nationally, approximately 22 million students depend on free or reduced-price school lunches, according to the School Nutrition Association (SNA). As of March 10, 621 schools have been closed or are scheduled to close, affecting more than 430,000 students and “jeopardizing access to a critical source of nutrition for students across the country”, according to a press release by the committee.

Disrupted meal distribution as the novel coronavirus spreads is top of mind for administrators nationwide who are considering the implications of district closures or online learning for students on free and reduced-priced lunches. For example, New York City Public Schools decided to remain open largely because of the role schools play as social service centers, including providing access to students who are on meal assistance programs.

Other districts across the nation are grappling with the logistics of how and where to continue meal distribution if schools close or transition online. “It’s impossible for schools to deliver meals to the home of each child,” AASA Executive Director Domenech told Education Dive last week. 

But despite the planning difficulties, districts are pushing to continue meal distribution services. “I still would want to try to get our families two meals a day,” Superintendent Michael Trimberger from rural Random Lake School District in Wisconsin said. He added he is looking for more guidance from the CDC and his nutrition teams as to what “no contact” to prevent disease transmission means in the context of meal distribution. 

A USDA spokeperson also told Education Dive last week it will be “ready to assist in the governmentwide effort to ensure all Americans have access to food in times of need.”

“All of our programs — including SNAP, WIC and the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs — have flexibilities and contingencies built-in to allow us to respond to on-the-ground realities and take action as directed by Congress,” the spokesperson said. 

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced Tuesday the agency’s flexibilities for providing meal service during school closures, which allow schools to leverage their participation in USDA’s summer meal programs to provide meals at no cost to students during the outbreak.

“Under normal circumstances, those meals must be served in a group setting,” the agency said in a press release. “However, in a public health emergency, the law allows USDA the authority to waive the group setting meal requirement, which is vital during a social distancing situation.” The flexibility was effective immediately and will remain in effect until June 30.

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