WASHINGTON — Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue on Aug. 31 said the US Department of Agriculture will extend several flexibilities allowing summer meal program operators to continue serving free meals to all children into the fall months and through the end of 2020. The aim was to help ensure children have access to nutritious food as the country continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic. The USDA will use congressionally appropriated funding that has been made available for this purpose.

“As our nation reopens and people return to work, it remains critical our children continue to receive safe, healthy, and nutritious food,” Mr. Perdue said. “During the COVID-19 pandemic, USDA has provided an unprecedented amount of flexibilities to help schools feed kids through the school meal programs, and today, we are also extending summer meal program flexibilities for as long as we can, legally and financially.

“We appreciate the incredible efforts by our school foodservice professionals year in and year out, but this year we have an unprecedented situation. 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.”

Following Mr. Perdue’s announcement, the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) said it was extending a suite of nationwide waivers for the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and Seamless Summer Option (SSO) through the end of 2020, or until available funding runs out. 

This will allow SFSP and SSO meals to be served in all areas and at no cost. It will permit meals to be served outside of the typically required group settings and mealtimes. It will waive meal pattern requirements as necessary. And it will allow parents and guardians to pick up meals for their children.

FNS said collectively, these flexibilities will ensure meal options for children continue to be available so children can access meals under all circumstances.

The USDA said it was taking this action to respond to the needs of its stakeholders, who have shared concerns about continuing to reach those in need without enlisting the help of traditional summer sites located throughout communities across the United States.

The FNS said the summer meal program waiver extensions are based on current data estimates. During the past six months, partners across the country have set up nearly 80,000 sites, handing out meals at a higher reimbursement rate than the traditional school year program.

The USDA has continuously recalculated remaining appropriated funds to determine how far the department may be able to provide waivers into the future, as Congress did not authorize enough funding for the entire 2020-21 school year.

Reporting activities have been delayed due to states responding to the pandemic; but, based upon the April data, the FNS projected that it could offer this extension, contingent on funding, for the remaining months of 2020. The USDA said it will monitor the rapidly evolving situation and continue to keep Congress informed of our current abilities and limitations.

“The SNA greatly appreciates USDA addressing the critical challenges shared by our members serving students on the frontlines these first weeks of school,” said Reggie Ross, president of the School Nutrition Association. “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. We look forward to continuing our dialogue with USDA to ensure school meal programs are equipped to meet the future needs of America’s students.”