USDA extends free student meal programs through end of 2020 

By: - September 1, 2020 1:06 pm

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The U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) on Tuesday granted requests from federal lawmakers for extensions on free meal programs for schoolchildren.

After his department received numerous requests for flexibility during the COVID-19 pandemic, no-cost summer meal programs have been extended through the fall, per Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who called the situation “unprecedented.” 

“This extension of summer program authority will employ summer program sponsors to ensure meals are reaching all children – whether they are learning in the classroom or virtually –  so they are fed and ready to learn, even in new and ever-changing learning environments,” Perdue said.

The extension comes after lawmakers from Michigan and other states sent letters to Perdue and the department.

U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) on Thursday sent a letter to Perdue specifically requesting the department extend waivers for its Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), a federally funded program administered by states that reimburses program operators who supply free meals to children in low-income regions. Upton also asked for an extended waiver on the Seamless Summer Option (SSO), a program that lets public schools combine features of various school nutrition programs and reduce paperwork. 

The USDA’s waivers will allow SFSP and SSO meals to be served for free in all areas, permit meals to be served outside of required group settings and meal times, waive meal pattern requirements and allow parents or guardians to pick up meals for their kids.

Between now and Dec. 31, children can continue receiving meals regardless of whether they are attending school remotely or in-person. 

“Without these waivers, there would have been students in need who would not have been able to access healthy and nutritious meals,” Upton said. “Our students should be able to focus on their education without having to worry about where their next meal will come from.”

U.S. Rep. Andy Levin (D-Bloomfield Twp.), who serves as vice chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, co-signed an Aug. 7 letter from members of Congress that also urged the USDA to renew waivers to enable the SFSP and the SSO. 

The letter also was signed by U.S. Reps. Haley Stevens (D-Rochester Hills), Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit).

Congress in March authorized the use of the waivers under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

“The flexibility to operate SFSP and SSO is essential for schools to continue serving children when school buildings are not accessible, which will continue to be the case in many parts of the country during the coming school year,” lawmakers said in the Aug. 7 letter.

Without the aforementioned flexibilities, a number of schools would have to stop providing meals, they wrote.

“In challenging times, it is amazing to see hardworking educators and service providers figuring out the moment and making incredible things happen,” Levin said on Tuesday. “In fact, adapting the meal program for the pandemic, with drive-thru service and groceries for home-cooked meals, has made it a better program that families love.”

Since mid-March, Michigan schools have distributed 89 million meals to children, Levin said.

However, Levin added that he believes the extension to December is not enough. He said he’ll push for the USDA to lengthen the extension through the 2020-21 academic year.

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C.J. Moore
C.J. Moore

C.J. Moore covers the environment and the Capitol. She previously worked at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland as a public affairs staff science writer. She also previously covered crop sustainability and coal pollution issues for Great Lakes Echo. In addition, she served as editor in chief at The State News and covered its academics and research beat. She is a journalism graduate student at Michigan State University.