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USDA announces free school meals for youths through summer

Measure is aimed at feeding the country’s 12 million hungry children, but meal providers say they still need increased reimbursements

Students each lunch Monday at school in Philadelphia. (Hannah Beier/Reuters)

The Agriculture Department announced Tuesday that it would take steps to ensure free meals are offered to all American schoolchildren when schools are out over the summer, in an effort to reach more of the estimated 12 million youths experiencing food insecurity.

The USDA said in an announcement that it was extending waivers that allow all schoolchildren to receive free meals until Sept. 30.

The waivers allow meals to be served at no cost, outside group settings and mealtimes, allowing parents and guardians to pick up multiple days of food at once in some school districts and without their children’s presence.

“We will do everything we can to make sure children get access to healthy, nutritious meals regardless of their families’ financial circumstances,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement Tuesday. “Our child nutrition professionals are doing a heroic job ensuring kids across the country have proper nutrition throughout this public health emergency, often times with limited resources.”

However, Tuesday’s announcement did not come with increased per-meal reimbursements for providers.

During the pandemic, most school meal programs have operated at a loss, with significantly higher costs and no increased per-meal reimbursement from the USDA.

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“It’s cheaper to make a big vat of spaghetti and put it on trays for kids than it is to safety package to-go meals,” said Lisa Davis, a senior vice president at Share Our Strength, a hunger charity.

“Schools have needed boxes and bags and shrink wrap,” she said. “There has needed to be added refrigeration to store meals safely. Then there were supply-chain issues, transportation costs went up, and certain foods were harder to come by and at a premium. Staffing costs went up as districts started paying hazard pay, bringing in temporary support and providing PPE.”

Katie Wilson, executive director of the Urban School Food Alliance, a professional organization for 16 of the largest school districts in the country, said her member districts reported collective losses of $130.8 million for the year ending June 30. She said that before Tuesday’s announcement, her districts were in “panic mode” about the summer. But while this announcement will help, she said, for school districts “it’s not enough. The USDA needs to look at the reimbursement rate. It’s only gone up 40 cents per meal in the past 10 years.”

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Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations for the School Nutrition Association, the trade group for school food-service manufacturers and professionals, said the announcement will mean no disruption in the grab-and-go curbside offerings many families have relied upon during the crisis. But how meal programs pay for expanded services remains a question, she said.

“We’re still very concerned about the financial impact,” Pratt-Heavner said. “We’ve seen very dramatic losses in reimbursement, and we will continue to advocate for financial relief. Schools are going to need help covering the losses.”

Before Tuesday’s announcement, the waiver would have expired at the end of June, meaning many summer meal service sites would have ceased operations. Pratt-Heavner said she anticipates there will still be distance learners and the need to maintain some safety protocols into the fall, so she hopes the waivers will be further extended.

“The pandemic has made it evident how critical these programs are, whether it’s distance learning or in the cafeteria,” she said. “These meals are just as critical as textbooks and teacher to ensure students are focused on their studies.”

School nutrition advocates say the measure could help provide momentum for the federal government to adopt universal free meals for all schoolchildren.

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“I think there is a ton of energy and momentum for free school meals being driven by the pandemic,” said Crystal FitzSimons, director of school programs for the Food Research and Action Center, a nonprofit hunger group. She said that even before the pandemic hit, 30,000 of the country’s 92,000 schools that participate in school meals were serving all students free meals if they determined at least half of the students in the district were low-income.

FitzSimons said offering free breakfast and lunch to all students reduces administrative paperwork for schools, eliminates stigma related to participating in the program and reduces students’ impediments to learning. She said Minnesota, Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, California and Oregon have introduced bills to make free school meals universal at the state level.

“A lot of these flexibilities are things advocates have been pushing for decades,” said Jamie Bussel, a senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a philanthropy focused on health. “What’s new is the sense of urgency.” She said studies show that eating breakfast regularly, including breakfast at school, has cognitive benefits including better behavior and academic performance.

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Vermont state Sen. Bobby Starr (D), who introduced the bill in his state, said the pandemic had forced the issue of food insecurity.

“My take on this whole thing is that we spend $1.8 billion to educate our 70,000 children in Vermont,” he said. “What is another $5 to $10 million a year to guarantee every kid has adequate food? It’s like pocket change.”