As educators and administrators, parents and students prepare for the coming school year, big challenges lay ahead. Among the most important of these challenges is ensuring kids continue to have access to the nutrition they need to learn.
The coronavirus has caused a catastrophic economic crisis in the United States, as millions of families have lost jobs and wages. Early research shows that financial hardship felt by many Americans in the wake of the pandemic has left 1 in 4 families with kids struggling to put food on the table. To weather this storm, families will need a combination of resources to help feed their children.
School meals will be crucial to meet increased childhood hunger in communities all across our nation, but they will look different than they have in the past as schools continue social distancing practices and remote learning. In order to reach kids who rely on these meals, schools and community organizations need flexibility to operate programs in ways that adequately meet the current level of need and adapt to the situation unfolding on the ground. The USDA has offered some flexibilities for the coming year, but these fall short of the options that communities and families need.
For this to be possible, No Kid Hungry is asking the USDA to extend critical nationwide child nutrition waivers through the coming school year, including:
- Extending all nationwide waivers for the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), including the area eligibility waivers.
- Giving schools and community organizations the option to serve meals through the summer meals program - SFSP and Seamless Summer Option (SSO) - throughout the school year.
- Extending the nationwide enrichment activity waiver for afterschool meals and snacks. Recent USDA guidance allows for virtual and take-home activities, but this leaves program operators scrambling for new enrichment options as the school year begins.
- Extending the guidance allowing schools and community organizations, like the Boys and Girls Clubs and YMCAs, to serve meals through both the summer meals and afterschool meals programs.
Since the coronavirus pandemic first closed schools in March, schools and community organizations have been able to continue serving students in a successful manner – in part, due to the ability ro run the summer meals programs and the flexibility granted by their states and the USDA. Schools will lose critical flexibilities as they reopen, and some of these flexibilities will expire entirely on September 30. If these waivers are not extended, many kids who rely on school meals will not get them.
This school year presents a unique set of challenges, and schools desperately need more options to effectively respond to them. School nutrition teams are reimagining what meal service should look like while trying to meet the needs of students and families during the immediate crisis. To do so, they will rely heavily on the flexibility to innovate. Should a surge in COVID cases cause schools to close entirely once again, schools and community organizations also need to be able to implement emergency operations as they did this past spring.
Students and educators alike face an uncertain school year. But no matter what school looks like - remote, in person or a hybrid - we need to make sure kids get the food they need to learn. We urge the USDA to take immediate action to extend the critical nationwide child nutrition waivers that will allow schools the flexibility to feed hungry kids.
No Kid Hungry strongly urges the USDA to extend these waivers through the entire 2020-2021 school year.