School nutrition group to USDA: Provide free meals for all students in 2020-21

Two more waivers allowing schools’ grab-and-go meal sites to operate are set to expire at the end of this month unless the U.S. Department of Agriculture extends them. Meanwhile, the School Nutrition Association is asking the USDA to extend 11 school meal waivers through the 2020-21 school year and provide all students with free meals. 

“Schools are considering vastly different learning models for the upcoming school year and urgently need answers now to plan modified school meal service based on what will be permissible under USDA regulations,” according to a Thursday letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. 

Even if schools serve meals in classrooms, the letter states, nutrition staff would have to revise menus and procedures and likely need additional equipment and supplies. 

“School meal programs may be asked to operate multiple service models simultaneously, serving some students in the cafeteria, some in the classroom and others via grab-and-go pick up or meal delivery,” according to the letter. “These plans could be upended by a second wave of the coronavirus, requiring schools to quickly switch service models at any point.” 

The more immediate concerns for advocates are the area eligibility waiver — which allows schools outside of high-need areas to offer free meals — and the unanticipated school closure waiver, which allowed schools to operate as they would during the summer.

The area eligibility waiver, which allows for meal providers in communities where less than half of students meet family income cutoffs —  “is a huge one,” said Crystal FitzSimons, the director of school and out-of-school time programs at the Food Research and Action Center. “We do have a lot of sites that don’t hit the 50% mark.”

And in a recent commentary, Bradley Tusk and Sheila Nix, of Tusk Philanthropies, wrote the area eligibility waiver is important because many students live in “middle-income households whose finances have suddenly bottomed out.” 

On Tuesday, FRAC joined SNA and dozens of other education and advocacy organizations to send a separate letter to USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service asking for extensions through Sept. 30.

In mid-May, FNS extended waivers that allow schools to serve students in “non-congregate” settings, allow parents to pick up meals for their children, and provide flexibility in when meals are served. But other waivers were not included. 

Another waiver, which applies to the nutritional requirements for what schools have to include in the meals was extended, but only on a short-term basis. While meal requirements are a whole separate debate, in this case, the waiver allows flexibility at a time when shortages of certain items are possible. FNS said May 14 that it would “reevaluate the continued need for the waiver as the situation continues to evolve.” 

“A lot of providers need to have the option of offering meals that fill as many of the requirements as is possible, even if they can’t include a carton of milk,” Tusk and Nix wrote.

Meal program continues to adapt 

Turning 74 years old this week, the National School Lunch Program, which provides free or low-cost school meals to children in low-income homes, continues to adapt to changing demographics in public schools. 

A FRAC report released late last month, for example, shows continued growth in schools’ use of the NSLP’s Community Eligibility Provision, which allows schools with high percentages of students from poor families to provide free meals to all students. 

This school year, 30,667 schools participated in the program, an increase of more than 1,900 schools over the previous year. And almost 15 million students attend schools providing free meals, the report said. 

In some states, such as Vermont, there have been efforts to extend free meals to all students statewide. And in Oregon, state leaders provided funds to schools that can’t afford to take advantage of community eligibility and increased the income cutoff for families to be eligible for free or reduced price meals. 

FitzSimons has suggested with rising unemployment rates, it’s likely more students would be eligible for NSLP this fall and that even more schools will find it makes financial sense to participate in community eligibility. 

The USDA has also extended the deadline — from June 30 to Aug. 31 — for schools to apply for community eligibility for the 2020-21 school year. The agency is also allowing them to use student poverty data through the end of this month, which will be more likely to capture the impact of the pandemic on family finances. 

Family income data collected back at the beginning of the school year, FitzSimons said, “is not accurately reflecting the poverty in communities right now.”

As for area eligibility, FitzSimons added FRAC has long thought the 50% cutoff was too high and that maybe it should be lowered to 40%.

“Even if 48% of their students are low income,” she said, “they still have 48% of their students low income.”

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