Project aims to feed low-income children in Ohio during school closures

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced the second public-private initiative to provide replacement meals for low-income children who lost access to free or reduced-price meals due to school closures. The new project would feed children “vulnerable to hunger” in Ohio and follows the creation of an effort in Texas to offer shelf-stable meals to students in a limited number of rural schools closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Ohio initiative, involving the Children’s Health Alliance, based in Columbus, and the Panera Bread restaurant chain, could be expanded nationwide, said Perdue during a White House briefing by the coronavirus task force on Friday. The Ohio effort was scheduled to begin April 6. In Texas, “the boxes are ready to ship” in the Meals-to-You initiative that meshes the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty, McLane Global and PepsiCo, said chairman Denton McLane of McLane Global. McLane and Panera chief executive Niren Chaudhary spoke at the briefing.

Panera said it would provide freshly prepared meals “at extreme discount to align with current USDA school-food prices.” In a statement, the company, based in St. Louis, said it was ready to assist other states and invited inquiries from nonprofits and state governments. In the partnership with Children’s Health Alliance, five meals were offered, ranging from salad to sandwiches and vegetable snack boxes.

When the Texas project was announced on March 17, PepsiCo said it donated $1 million to the Baylor Collaborative “create a solution with USDA to identify children most in need and then we will reach them with at least 200,000 meals per week,” with a goal of delivering 1 million meals a week.

The Texas and Ohio projects follow USDA’s meal pattern and cost-per-meal structure, said a USDA official. The USDA did not say how much it would spend on the initiatives, which were described as part of an “all of the above” approach, along with school districts and nonprofit groups, to provide carry-away meals to replace the breakfasts and lunches ordinarily served during the school year.

“USDA is committed to maximizing our services and flexibilities to ensure children and others who need food can get it during this coronavirus epidemic,” said Perdue.

An average 29.5 million students a day eat a hot meal through the school lunch program, with 22 million of them eligible for free or reduced price food. Summer food programs, the most common option for meals to low-income schoolchildren when schools are out of session, are available only in low-income areas and reached fewer than 3 million children in 2018, said the Food Research and Action Center. The meals come from two sources, the “seamless summer option” of the school lunch program and the Summer Food Service Program.

In Ohio, school lunch participation averaged 980,000 pupils last fall and in Texas, participation averaged 3.36 million children, according to USDA data.

The $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill signed by President Trump on Friday included $8.8 billion for USDA’s child nutrition programs. With the funding, the USDA said it was approving so-called area eligibility waivers that remove barriers to providing meals. “Approvals on a state-by-state basis began Friday night and are continuing throughout the weekend. Our website will be updated with these additional approvals within the next few days,” said the USDA official.

“This is the No. 1 request that we are hearing from schools and community-based organizations,” said school officials, medical groups, anti-hunger advocates and religious groups in a letter to USDA last week. “It is an administrative challenge for schools and sponsors to children who have been certified for free or reduced-price school meals. This is particularly true in rural areas … With each passing day, more children are becoming eligible for free school meals. With schools closed, there is no mechanism for a newly eligible family to be certified to receive free school meals.”

The letter, signed by 57 groups, also asked USDA to waive eligibility requirements and reimburse all meals at the free-meal rate. The groups asked USDA, in coordination with the CDC, to provide advice on steps that food service workers and community volunteers can take to protect themselves while preparing and distributing meals.

In the Texas collaborative, Baylor was to work with state officials to prioritize students who are not served by a summer food program “and have an active outbreak of Covid-19.” The boxes would contain five days’ worth of shelf-stable food that meets USDA specifications.

“For the first time, we’ll be able to offer shelf-stable meals that will last two weeks,” said McLane at the White House. “That’s a true game changer for rural families…I can report to you the boxes are ready to ship.” McLane’s company was part of a trial last summer of food deliveries.

For a transcript of the White House briefing, click here.