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USDA Just Made it Easier to Serve School Meals Amid Coronavirus Precautions

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U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue extended some flexibilities Thursday that are designed to make it easier for schools to continue distributing student meals, even as they close buildings or modify operations in response to COVID-19.

As schools around the country abruptly closed in the spring, the U.S. Department of Agriculture waived some rules for its meal programs so that they could more easily distribute subsidized breakfasts and lunches to students who were learning remotely.

As they reopen, districts may face ongoing challenges with meal services: Some students may continue remote learning full-time or for a few days a week, meals may need to be served in classrooms instead of cafeterias to limit students' contact with peers, and buildings may have to close down again in response to resurging virus rates in their areas.

"As the country re-opens and schools prepare for the fall, a one-size-fits-all approach to meal service simply won't cut it," Perdue said in a statement.

Perdue responded to schools' concerns by extending the three waivers he initially granted in the spring. He had already expanded those waivers, initially set to expire June 30, until Aug. 31. They will now be in effect until June 30, 2021.

Perdue also added a new waiver to the list: Schools can pause the "offer versus serve" rule that allows high school students to take or leave some food items offered as part of a meal. That rule, designed to cut back on food waste, may be difficult to carry out in pre-packaged meal distribution.

The other temporary rule changes Perdue extended: 

  • Allow for non-congregate feeding, which means schools can serve meals outside of the normally-required group settings to support social distancing.
  • Waive a rule that children must be present when parents pick up grab-and-go meals for them.
  • Waive requirements related to standard serving times, allowing more flexibility for mass distribution.

Photo: Gemini Middle School staff member Nikho Seham prepares meals to distribute for free in Niles, Ill., in April. The school served meals each week for all children under the age of 18 during school closure from the coronavirus. --AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh


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