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The U.S. Department of Agriculture will continue reimbursing schools and childcare centers for free meals to all students regardless of their income through the 2021-22 school year, USDA officials announced Tuesday.
Meal service waivers such as the “Seamless Summer Option,” which made it possible for California districts to distribute millions of grab-and-go meals to students since campuses closed due to Covid-19, will be extended through June 2022, according to a USDA news release. Advocates say the extension comes at a pivotal time for food-insecure families.
“At a time when millions of families continue to face financial strain, hunger and hardship, these waivers allow schools to reach more kids with the food they need,” said Lisa Davis, senior vice president of national child hunger organization Share Our Strength. “With them, schools are able to cut through red tape and allow kids to eat for free.”
In addition to the flexibility of not having to check students’ income eligibility for free meals, districts are able to set up flexible meal times based on student schedules and needs. Districts can also serve meals to students outside normal school hours and deliver meals to students’ homes or other places instead of requiring them to pick up food at schools.
“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,” USDA Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a news release. “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.”
Typically, districts are only reimbursed for free meals served to students who qualify for and participate in the USDA’s National School Lunch Program. Statewide, 3.9 million students, 63% of California’s student body, participated in the program in the 2019-2020 school year.
But some district officials and child hunger experts say the number of families in need of food assistance both in the East Bay and throughout the state is actually much higher. That’s because many families avoid the National School Lunch Program’s application process out of embarrassment or privacy concerns.
Not having to check students’ eligibility made serving grab-and-go meals during the pandemic much easier for districts like Fresno Unified School District, which served around 20,000 meals a day during the summer of 2020, Chief Operations Officer Karin Temple said.
Davis, of Share our Strength, said extending the waivers now gives schools time to appropriately plan and budget for next year’s meal programs, so they can operate “effectively, efficiently and with the stability needed to support local economies.”
Advocates are pushing at the state and federal level to make universal free meals a permanent fixture at schools. State Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, introduced SB 364 last month, which would ensure free meals for all students starting in the 2022-23 school year. The bill was heard by the Senate’s Human Services Committee Tuesday afternoon.
“When Oakland Unified School District offered free meals, our participation numbers increased, providing much needed revenue,” said Oakland Unified superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell in a statement supporting SB 364. “More importantly, families from all income groups told us they have come to rely on these meals as a reliable source of nutrition for their kids.”
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