The USDA Agrees to Extend the Free School Lunch Program — For Now

published Sep 2, 2020
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Credit: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn

One of the biggest concerns for schools since the beginning of COVID-19 in the United States has been how to get food to the millions of children whose families rely on free and reduced-price breakfasts and lunches for meals. At the beginning of the pandemic, schools and districts scrambled to establish distribution points, deliver by school bus, and do whatever they could in order to feed their students. The USDA helpfully created a waiver in March, allowing districts to feed students even while they were closed, and without being in a group setting. At the time, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, said, “If schools are closed, we are going to do our very best to make sure kids are fed.”

As schools started to reopen for the fall semester, however, Perdue’s statement was put into question. The waiver was set to expire on August 31 and the USDA said that free school lunch would not be available for everyone due to a lack of funding (the initial waivers back in March were made possible in part due to the Families First coronavirus relief bill). But after some backlash, the agency announced on Monday this week that they would, in fact, permit schools to feed all children, as long “as funding allows.” The waiver will last through December 31 of this year.

One of the other waived rules that helped keep children around the country fed was that school districts didn’t have to ascertain exactly how the students qualified for lunches. Normally, the 30 million children who benefit from the school lunch program need to show that they are enrolled in the school district and that their family qualifies for the income restrictions (this usually means that students whose family income is under 130 percent of the federal poverty line can receive free lunch). However, during the pandemic, schools were permitted to feed all children, which helped to speed up the districts’ abilities to serve and also meant that those families whose circumstances had changed recently would be able to benefit.

While the extension of the free lunch program is good news, it falls short of the bill that was presented to legislators earlier this summer to eliminate the need for the waiver and ensure that all children can access food for the 2020/2021 school 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,” the USDA release explains.