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Groups Push to Extend Relaxed Rules for Student Meals as COVID-19 Strains System

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The coronavirus pandemic has put enormous pressure on school meal services, and there have been recent signs that this safety net is coming apart. Now advocates say flexibility from program requirements that the federal government provided towards the start of the pandemic for schools and others should be extended for several months.

Since late last month, there's been a Beltway push for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to extend waivers from various meal rules. These waivers cover those who provide school and summer meal services, as well as care providers that participate in the Child and Adult Care Food Program. 

Child and nutrition advocacy groups want the USDA to extend several of the meal waivers until Sept. 30. They say Congress gave Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue the power to grant that extension under the COVID-19 Child Nutrition Response Act that President Donald Trump signed into law in March.

Here are a few of the notable waivers the group is pushing for the USDA to extend that are due to expire June 30 or when the official federal public health emergency ends, whichever is sooner:

Another notable request: Groups wants an extension to the flexibility from normal meal-pattern requirements that govern things like serving sizes for different meals. Waivers from those requirements are due to expire May 31 or when the public health emergency ends, whichever is sooner. 

Some of the flexibility related to the pandemic let meal providers operate under Summer Food Service Program rules. (See this one, for example, about serving meals in non-congregate settings during the summer.) So just because the academic year ends doesn't necessarily mean that all of the COVID-related flexibility students and families are now benefitting from would vanish or diminish. 

However, Carolyn Vega, a senior program manager at No Kid Hungry, a child nutrition advocacy group, noted that not all the waivers granted by the USDA cover the summer months and beyond in a way that would make it practical and safe for those serving meals. 

"If they don't know how they're going to be able to operate in July and August, they can't effectively make those plans now," Vega said of those meal providers in a Tuesday interview. "They are already financially strapped."

Vega cited the extension of the non-congregate meal waiver as particularly important, given how it allows providers to serve meals to children without having to gather in large groups. 

The push on USDA included a letter sent late last month by hundreds of organizations.

"In absence of certainty from USDA about whether various program requirements will continue to be waived, sponsors, especially those facing the risk of continued social distancing measures, may be forced to refrain from program participation this summer," the April 29 letter from the groups state. "As a result, vulnerable children will have decreased access to critical nutrition at a time of unprecedented need."

In response to a request for comment, the USDA said in a statement Tuesday that it is "committed to maximizing our services and flexibilities to ensure children and others who need food can get it during this Coronavirus epidemic. This is a challenging time for many Americans, but it is reassuring to see President Trump and our fellow Americans stepping up to the challenges facing us to make sure kids and those facing hunger are fed."

Photo: Cafeteria worker Cathy Piluso hands out free meals at Bensalem High School in Bensalem, Pa., in mid-March. Fears that food service workers could contract or spread the virus are spurring some districts around the country to rethink their alternative food service programs. --AP Photo/Matt Rourke


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