In abrupt reversal, USDA extends summer school food waivers

The Department of Agriculture said Monday that it would extend school meal waivers through Dec. 30—less than a week after Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue had said the programs would lapse by Sept. 30. The sudden reversal came amid an outcry from advocates and lawmakers from both parties, who argued that Perdue’s refusal to extend key waivers and flexibilities around free summer meals would worsen record levels of child hunger.

Although the move comes as a relief to anti-hunger advocates and school administrators, the confusing flip-flop is a testament to the Trump administration’s political approach to hunger policy. Advocates say that, throughout the pandemic, they have had to fight tooth and nail to get meals to food-insecure kids.

More than 30 million children rely on school meals for breakfast and lunch to round out their daily calorie needs; 22 million qualify for free or reduced-price meals. When schools closed in March, the USDA authorized a series of actions that, combined with the Summer Food Service Program and the Seamless Summer Option, have made it easier for families to pick up free meals, regardless of their child’s age or income bracket. This enabled parents to obtain meals for school-age children and children too young to enroll in school.

The waivers have also provided reimbursement to community organizations—such as the YMCA or local chapters of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America—that offered more convenient meal pick-up sites to families who lived far from school.

The USDA resisted demands for waivers from the outset of the pandemic, according to Katie Wilson, executive director of the Urban School Food Alliance. “I’ve been in school nutrition for over 30 years and have never had to fight so hard to get the administration to feed kids,” she said. 

In normal times, school meals are essential for providing children with nutritious food. With school out of session, replacement tools haven’t “reached all eligible families, putting a real burden on households to provide three meals a day to everyone who’s at home,” said Lauren Bauer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. 

Despite a series of emergency programs—from the USDA waivers to cash-supply tools like Pandemic-EBT and new flexibilities in food-stamp enrollment—hunger has reached record levels. After many federal aid programs ended this summer, families are facing new hardships.  Even with the waivers, school meal programs have faced tremendous challenges. Only 60 percent of children eligible for free or reduced-price meals have been able to get them during the pandemic, according to the Urban Institute. In some cases, administrators feared meal sites would become infection hotspots; families who relied on public transport to reach their children’s schools were afraid to do so. 

Child hunger is difficult to measure, but numerous reports indicate it has soared since March. Between 9 and 17 million children live in households where there isn’t enough to eat, and around 29 million adults reported that they sometimes or often don’t have enough to eat, according to a July analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The rates more than doubled for Black and Latino households.

In a statement, Lisa Davis, the president of No Kid Hungry, said Monday’s extension was important for millions of kids heading back to school. But she stressed that extending the waivers through December is “not enough,” particularly as Covid-19 cases continue to rise in many parts of the country, requiring a reliable safety net “well into 2021.” Davis added: “Last minute, stop-gap measures like these can create confusion for parents and barriers to the long-term planning needed to reach the unprecedented number of kids going hungry in our country right now.”

Lawmakers who had pressured Perdue to extend the waivers praised the USDA reversal, though some noted that the December end date was insufficient. Robert Scott, a Virginia Democrat who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee, said the extension “remains a temporary solution that will expire long before the child hunger crisis ends.” He called on the USDA to “immediately use its authority to extend summer school meal flexibilities through the end of 2020-21 school year to ensure schools can continue to meet the needs of struggling families.”

Perdue’s initial refusal to extend the waivers already had left some kids hungry, according to Wilson. “Many have to back track, because school started and some have turned kids away,” she said. “The USDA could have done this a month ago to put everyone at ease, spending their time getting food to families rather than spending thousands of dollars in systems to track children’s income and what school they attend.”

School districts already facing budget cuts and staffing shortages, she explained, scrambled to create new, costly operating systems, investing in “new I.D. cards, and new technology, like scanners and tablets.”

Advocates argue that a constellation of mechanisms is required to tackle child hunger. “Each program leaves someone out, so we need all of them together,” Davis said. 

Food banks and local charities have seen unprecedented demand, but the scope of their reach pales in comparison to government programs. “The reality is that charities can’t absorb school meals,” said Erin McAleer, the president of Project Bread, a Massachusetts anti-hunger group. Absent the waivers, she said, some of the kids her organization feeds at local sites would “have to take two buses to get to their schools just to get lunch.” 

The rancor over waiver extensions points to the weakness of the social safety net in adapting to the volatility of the current moment. Pandemic-EBT, for example, has been quite successful in helping struggling families put food on the table. But the program, which distributes the equivalent of $5.70 for each missed school day per child, is only available when a student has been unable to attend in-person school for more than five consecutive days. Many districts, however, are opting for hybrid models, where kids go to school for just part of the week. 

The USDA waivers and other tools are particularly important for rural families, who have struggled to reap the benefits of emergency anti-hunger tools. “Rural areas already had high levels of food insecurity and are now being hit very hard by the pandemic, suggesting schools that have opened will have to close again,” said Danny Mintz, the anti-hunger policy advocate at the Louisiana Budget Project. 

Reimbursements are essential for community organizations in rural areas, said Lauren Rhoades, program director at the Food Bank for Larimer County, in Colorado. “Kids have been coming to remote learning centers,” where they receive guidance with online classes while their parents are at work. When she heard the news last week, she feared her organization would have to foot the cost of meals or rely on cash-strapped partners such as Boys & Girls Clubs, which “are already incurring additional costs due to the pandemic.” 

Wilson, of the Urban School Food Alliance, said that childhood hunger has been swept up in a broader partisan fight over school reopening.

Perdue had initially said that, because Congress hadn’t funded a universal school meals program, the USDA lacked the authority to extend the waivers. But both Democrats and Republicans have urged the agency to extend the summer flexibilities well into the school year. 

“There’s clearly money,” Wilson said, referring to the USDA’s recent $1 billion addition to the Farmers-to-Families Food Box Program. “So why wouldn’t there be for school meals? It’s kids who are bearing the brunt of this political fight.”