USDA extends free school meal program after backlash

In a significant reversal, the USDA announced it will extend its free grab-and-go school meal program, after backlash over its plan to let the program expire at the end of September, in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

Starting in August, families would have been required to pay for food and pick it up from the school their child attends, which caused problems for parents without access to transportation or multiple children in different schools.

Public schools, which will be reimbursed for the meals at a higher rate than before, can now give meals to any kid who shows up, regardless of whether they attend that specific school, and can also hand off meals to parents and guardians of children as well.

Before this extension, schools were more limited in to whom they could serve meals and when. The flexible rules, which are an extension of summer meal programs, will allow much broader access to meals for kids at a time when food insecurity is growing increasingly dire

“These waivers will allow school nutrition professionals to focus on nourishing hungry children for success, rather than scrambling to process paperwork and verify eligibility in the midst of a pandemic,” said School Nutrition Association president Reggie Ross in a USDA release. 

Schools can immediately implement this new program, but some may wait for additional guidance, said Melissa Cannon, a senior advocate at California Food Policy Advocates.

Cannon said that these flexibilities meet the increased demand for food assistance during the pandemic, and that before this announcement, mostly only families who qualified for free and reduced lunch were picking up meals. In some districts, only 10% of the school population was picking up meals.

Now, she expects that many more people will take advantage of the increased access to meals through this program, including those who don’t qualify for free lunch, but are struggling financially. 

To qualify for free lunch, a family must make 130% of the federal poverty threshold, which in California for a family of four, is $34,060 for free lunch and $48,470 for reduced lunch.

“We have a huge number of students, who, that is their family income,” Cannon said. “We also have a lot who just don't earn a living wage, but yet don't qualify for a meal. And the pandemic has been hitting many of those families really hard.”

In a USDA press release, officials indicated that it was unlikely the program would last beyond the end of the year.

“While there have been some well-meaning people asking USDA to fund this through the entire 2020-2021 school year, we are obligated to not spend more than is appropriated by Congress,” USDA officials wrote.