USDA extends school-meal waivers through September

The USDA said Tuesday that it will extend a series of waivers to school meal programs through Sept. 30, as the pandemic hits its one-year mark and ongoing school closures continue to exacerbate food insecurity among low-income children.

The waivers, which were established at the onset of the public health crisis in March 2020 and extended numerous times since, are designed to make it easier for families to access meals kids would normally eat at school, even with campuses closed or offering hybrid learning models due to the pandemic. Notably, the waivers authorize schools and community organizations to serve as meal pickup sites for all children, regardless of income. They also allow families to pick up multiple meals at once — reducing trips to school as parents juggle remote learning and job constraints — or for schools to deliver meals directly to a child’s home. The waivers also increase flexibility around school meal times, and do not require children to eat in group settings.

“We will do everything we can to make sure children get access to healthy, nutritious meals regardless of their families’ financial circumstances,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement. “Our child nutrition professionals are doing a heroic job ensuring kids across the country have proper nutrition throughout this public health emergency, oftentimes with limited resources.”

The waivers had previously been extended only through June; anti-hunger advocates and school nutrition staff have for months called for them to be prolonged due to uncertainty over reopening and persistent food insecurity. More than one in seven Americans with children do not have enough to eat due to limited resources, according to the most recent census data, from February — a rate that jumps to more than one in five among Black and Latino families. And nearly a third of households receiving unemployment insurance still had trouble paying for basic expenses, including food, rent and mortgage.

Anti-hunger advocates celebrated the extension. “As schools and community organizations continue to reimagine traditional meal programs during this ongoing crisis, these waivers will continue critical flexibilities to continue reaching kids with the nutrition they need,” said Lisa Davis, senior vice president of No Kid Hungry.

“This extension will ensure that schools, local government agencies and private nonprofit organizations have the consistency, flexibility and time needed to effectively plan and implement summer meal service for the millions of children across the country who need access to nutritious meals,” added Luis Guardia, president of the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC).

The waiver extensions coincide with FRAC’s release of new findings on the pandemic’s toll on school meal programs, which have suffered devastating financial losses in the past year. The report — based on survey findings from 54 districts in 28 states and the District of Columbia — found significant drops in school meal participation in April and October 2020, compared to October 2019, when schools were still operating normally. In April 2020, school districts served 17.7 million breakfasts and 18.8 million lunches — a drop of 21 million breakfasts and 44 million lunches from October 2019.

In addition to millions of in-need kids missing out on free meals, the declining participation rates have wreaked havoc on school nutrition budgets, raising concerns about the programs’ ability to continue feeding students. A Government Accountability Office report found that in March and April 2020, schools served almost 400 million fewer meals than in the same period in 2019, resulting in a drastic reduction in federal reimbursement; schools are reimbursed only for meals served, but production costs — from kitchen staff salaries to cooking equipment — remain fixed. The pandemic added an additional financial burden, requiring nutrition programs to purchase protective gear and additional packaging for to-go meals. By October 2020, school meal programs had suffered nearly $500 million in losses due to the pandemic.

Katie Wilson, executive director of the Urban School Food Alliance, said the extensions would help school nutrition programs stay afloat, while improving access to free meals for struggling families. Vilsack’s announcement came as a relief, she said, after the previous administration often waited until the last minute to extend pandemic-related anti-hunger tools, leaving school districts scrambling to implement changes and adapt feeding programs.

“Because of our districts’ sheer size, it’s impossible to plan without months of advance notice,” Wilson said. The lead time will allow school nutrition programs to start planning now for the summer, coordinating outreach measures that Wilson expects will increase participation. “Schools can start doing PR in their communities now, to say meals will be available through the summer,” she explained. Last year, “messaging to parents and communities was very convoluted and kept changing, and so some parents just gave up and didn’t even try to pick up meals.” In one example from last fall, the Trump administration extended school meal waivers just one week after saying the program would lapse, leading to confusion among administrators and families.

Even as advocates praised Vilsack’s announcement, they said more must be done to address food insecurity as the pandemic drags on and some school districts have yet to resume in-person learning. “We’re so appreciative, but it’s not enough,” Wilson said. “We need the waivers through June 2022. Schools don’t know whether they’re going to open [next fall], or go hybrid, and some parents are going to choose to keep kids home.”

Speaking at the School Nutrition Association’s Legislative Action Conference on Tuesday, Vilsack said the department would assess further extensions for the 2021-22 school year “over the course of the next several weeks,” and anticipates making a decision by the end of April.