USDA works to return meal programs


Staff report



The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has issued a broad range of flexibilities to allow school meal programs and childcare institutions across the country to return to serving healthy meals in fall 2021. Several meal service flexibilities that enable social distancing are now extended through June 30, 2022.

“USDA will remain relentless in ensuring our nation’s children get the critical nutrition they need,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “States and districts wanted waivers extended to plan for safe reopening in the fall. USDA answered the call to help America’s schools and childcare institutions serve high quality meals while being responsive to their local needs as children safely return to their regular routines. This action also increases the reimbursement rate to school meal operators so they can serve healthy foods to our kids. It’s a win-win for kids, parents and schools.”

A recent study from Tufts University found that in 2018 schools were the single healthiest source of U.S. food consumed across a sample of children and adults. The 2018 study found that diet quality for foods from schools improved significantly from a similar study conducted in 2003-04.

Schools nationwide will be allowed to serve meals through USDA’s National School Lunch Program Seamless Summer Option (SSO), which is typically only available during the summer months. This option maintains the nutrition standards of the standard school meal programs – including a strong emphasis on providing fruits and vegetables, fluid milk, whole grains, and sensible calorie levels, while allowing schools to serve free meals to all children.

In addition, schools that choose this option will receive higher-than-normal meal reimbursements for every meal they serve.

“Students’ success in the classroom goes hand in hand with their ability to access basic needs like healthy and nutritious meals,” said Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. “It’s critical that our efforts to reopen schools quickly and safely include programs that provide access to free, healthy meals for our most vulnerable students, particularly those whose communities have been hardest hit by the pandemic. This program will ensure more students, regardless of their educational setting, can access free, healthy meals as more schools reopen their doors for in-person learning.”

Schools and both child and adult care institutions can continue providing breakfasts, lunches, and after school snacks in non-group settings at flexible meal times. Parents or guardians can also pick up meals for their children when programs are not operating normally, all while maintaining social distancing consistent with federal recommendations.

And just recently, USDA maximized economic relief for struggling families by taking administrative action on SNAP emergency allotments by targeting an additional $1 billion per month to roughly 25 million people. That includes:

• Extending a 15% increase in SNAP benefits — providing over $1.1 billion per month in additional benefits for about 41 million participants—through September 2021;

• Extending and expanding P-EBT—a program that served over 8.4 million families with children at its peak last year—through the duration of the public health emergency;

• Funding meals for young adults experiencing homelessness through Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) emergency shelters;

• Providing nearly $900 million for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), including a temporary increase in fruit and vegetable vouchers to $35 per month and an historic investment in innovation and outreach to better serve more than 6.2 million people that use WIC to support a healthy start for infants and young children.

For a complete list of the waiver actions announced today, visit FNS’s COVID Response page at www.fns.usda.gov/coronavirus.

Staff report