Children to Get Federal Meals When Covid Forces Schools to Close

  • Bipartisan lawmakers spur reversal by Agriculture secretary
  • Summer program to continue until year-end, money permitting

The Agriculture Department will extend initiatives that provide meals to children at schools that close during coronavirus outbreaks—a move Secretary Sonny Perdue previously dismissed.

Perdue, who previously said extending the programs for the full school year would be akin to creating “a universal school meals program,” announced Monday that waivers for summer meal programs would be renewed “for as long as we can, legally and financially.” The Summer Food Service Program and the Seamless Summer Option operate over summer break and during unexpected closures, such as when schools deemed Covid-19 hot spots shuttered in the spring.

Virus outbreaks already reported in classrooms from Wisconsin to Georgia indicate the fall semester won’t be much different as state officials take a patchwork approach to starting lessons remotely and in-person.

Karen Ducey/Getty Images
Seattle bus driver Treva White and nutritionist Shaunté Fields deliver meals to children and their families on May 6, 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic that forced schools to close.

The Agriculture Department will extend the summer meal program waivers either through the year’s end or until the money runs out. Congress hasn’t provided enough funding to extend the program through the entire 2020-2021 school year, a department press release said.

“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 in a statement.

‘Universal School Meals’

Bipartisan lawmakers recently demanded the waiver renewals to prevent student hunger during the pandemic. House Education and Labor Chairman Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), whose committees oversee school food programs, were told their requests to extend the summer meal programs through the school year “would be closer to a universal school meals program which Congress has not authorized or funded,” in an Aug. 20 letter from Perdue.

Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), who led the GOP push for the Agriculture Department to act, lauded the new decision “to assist school food authorities and non-school sponsoring organizations to provide children with meals while schools begin various models of in-person and virtual classroom sessions under the COVID-19 emergency conditions.”

“These waivers will allow school nutrition professionals to focus on nourishing hungry children for success, rather than scrambling to process paperwork and verify eligibility in the midst of a pandemic,” said School Nutrition Association President Reggie Ross in a statement.

To contact the reporter on this story: Megan U. Boyanton in Washington at mboyanton@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com; Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com

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