Uncertainty persists around fall school meal distribution

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Dive Brief:

  • With deadlines approaching on U.S. Department of Agriculture waivers that eased food distribution program rules for school districts while buildings were closed during the 2019-20 school year, uncertainty remains as to how meal programs should plan for the fall amid the threat of a second wave of coronavirus, Roll Call reports.
  • Many scenarios proposed by districts nationwide include staggered schedules where students will attend class in-person some days and engage in distance learning on others in order to facilitate social distancing. Cincinnati Public Schools Student Dining Services Director Jessica Shelly tells the publication every option currently on the table requires new waivers or an extension in order for a “significant population” of students to remain fed.
  • The current waiver allows districts to offer meal programs to areas where less than half of students come from low-income families, so any student living in the boundary can receive free meals. It also allows for off-site meal service so schools can provide grab-and-go meals or meals via bus distribution and gives flexibility on the items included in the meals — as long as they meet nutrition standards.

Dive Insight:

This fall, food distribution may vary from district to district — and even from week to week. Though some students may return to the classroom this fall, the ongoing threat of a second waive of coronavirus may force schools to close on and off throughout the school year.

As a result, school nutrition services need various food distribution models in place as remote learners will still need access to grab-and-go or bus distribution options. In schools where students must eat in the classroom, there will likely be revised menus and procedures in place that could require additional supplies.

The School Nutrition Association is calling on the U. S. Department of Agriculture to extend waivers that eased food distribution program rules and made it easier for districts to continue to provide food for students while buildings were closed during the 2019-20 school year. The current COVID-19 waiver has been extended through the summer

Nutrition service directors are most concerned with extending the eligibility waiver that allows schools outside of high-poverty areas to offer free meals. The waiver allows meals to be served in communities where less than half of students’ families meet the requirements, which can help middle-income families that have suddenly lost income due to layoffs and furloughs.

The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act — which was passed by the House of Representatives but has not been voted on by the Senate — includes $3 billion for school nutrition programs and a 15% increase in the maximum Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for families. Gay Anderson, president of the School Nutrition Association, cited soaring unemployment and food insecurity as reasons that more students are relying on school meals.

More schools may participate in the National School Lunch Program as the high national unemployment rate makes more students eligible. Schools in the program offer free meals to all students, but it is more cost effective when the school has a higher percentage of students who qualify for reimbursable meals. The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service is giving districts an extra two months to apply for Community Eligibility for the 2020-21 school year. Poverty data can be used through June 30.

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