Covid-19 drives emergency steps for school food in two states

The USDA approved requests from California and Washington State to provide free meals to low-income students when schools are closed due to the coronavirus outbreak. The waivers, good through June 30, were the first by USDA to help schools deal with the disease in part by allowing them to stop serving meals in group settings, such as a cafeteria.

One in eight of the elementary and high school students eating hot meals through the school lunch program are in California and Washington. Some 29.5 million pupils participated in the school lunch program in the fiscal year ending last Sept. 30 and two-thirds of them received meals for free.

To date, few schools have closed but large-scale closures are possible. Los Angeles declared a public health emergency last week and said it was possible that schools would be shuttered. Anti-hunger advocates say a lengthy shutdown would remove schools as a source of nutritious food for some low-income children. Other authorities say some pupils will be left behind if schools switch to classes on the internet because 6 million to 7 million households with children do not have an internet connection, reported Axios.

In the Seattle area, the suburban Northshore School District, with nearly 24,000 students, closed last Thursday for up to two weeks, with classes shifting online, said NPR. The district said it would provide digital equipment to students who need it.

“The flexibility provided by the waiver approved … will help ensure that our children get wholesome meals, safeguarding their health during times of need,” said Brandon Lipps, who oversees USDA’s child nutrition programs, on Saturday. Washington received its waiver on Friday and California on Saturday. In an effort to minimize risk, the USDA said “meals are not required to be served in a group setting.”

The School Nutrition Association, representing school food directors, asked the USDA for flexibility last week in dealing with the coronavirus, particularly freedom from a requirement for congregate feeding. “Grab and go” meals would minimize the spread of the disease, said the SNA, which also suggested that meals be served at schools and community sites, and meals be delivered to satellite locations to minimize reliance on public transit to reach a feeding location.

“Nearly 22 million students each day depend on a free or reduced price school lunch as a key source of their daily nutrition,” said the letter. “SNA members, who work on the frontlines in school cafeterias nationwide, are keenly aware that many of these children lack access to adequate nutrition when school is out of session.”

The federal response to the coronavirus should include expansion of public nutrition programs, said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer. “We must expand SNAP, WIC, school lunch and other initiatives and suspend implementation of any regulations that weaken federal food assistance, in order to ensure vulnerable populations do not lose access to food during this epidemic,” they said in listing eight steps to protect the health of American workers.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue is scheduled to join SNA leaders in a “fireside chat” on Monday at the group’s annual legislative conference. The coronavirus was expected to be among the topics discussed.

The USDA says its public and child nutrition programs, from food stamps to WIC and school lunch, “have flexibilities and contingencies built in to allow them to respond to on-the-ground realities in the event of a disaster or emergency.”

In 2017, the USDA allowed schools in Oregon to give sealed meals to students to eat at home while schools were closed due to wildfires and it permitted New York City to serve free meals to all pupils in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, said Civil Eats.