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Feds Extend Meal Waivers for Students After Pressure From Schools, Lawmakers

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has extended waivers from federal meal requirements for children through the end of 2020, after schools and others expressed concern about students' access to meals during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Waivers extended by the USDA, which announced the decision on Monday, will allow schools and community groups to continue feeding students with fewer restrictions than are typically in place under the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs, and let organizations that serve students meals in the summer months continue doing so in the fall. These new extensions apply to the Summer Food Service Program and Seamless Summer Option. 

"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," Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in his Monday statement announcing that his agency was extending the waiver period. 

Monday's waiver extension represents an about-face for the department. On Aug. 20, Perdue said in a letter to members of Congress that he would require schools to shift back to certain requirements of the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs, and that flexibility under these summer-meal programs would lapse with the start of a new school year. 

To justify his decision, Purdue said that he believed Americans were a "generous people" and would help provide a variety of opportunities to provide children with meals, while the waiver extensions would represent a step toward a "universal meals program" not authorized or paid for by Congress. 

But school officials and others have been arguing for weeks that food insecurity brought about by the pandemic made such flexibility for schools all the more essential. They also said the fact that many schools are starting the school year with all-remote instruction made it more important for them to provide students with meals quickly and easily. 

In addition to public school groups, members of Congress—including, perhaps crucially, Republicans—pushed for the department to continue flexibility for these programs. On Aug. 26, for example, GOP lawmakers on the House education committee told Perdue that, "Given the broad range of [school reopening] plans, we should ensure the federal programs that help feed students are flexible, easy to operate, and free of unnecessary burdens."

Senate Republicans also encouraged Perdue to extend flexibility for these programs. The waiver extensions announced by Perdue on Monday will last until Dec. 31, "or until available funding runs out," the USDA said. 

Perdue had previously extended other waivers from meal requirements initially granted to help schools and families deal with the pandemic. Those waivers were first extended until Aug. 31, but were extended again and are now in affect until June 30, 2021. You can read more about them here

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