Last week, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced they will not allow schools to continue operating under summer meal program rules this upcoming school year. In a letter to federal lawmakers, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue wrote, “the scope of this request is beyond what USDA currently has the authority to implement and would be closer to a universal school meals program which Congress has not authorized.” California Food Policy Advocates is deeply disappointed that USDA would shift the responsibility of supporting school meal access during the pandemic. We strongly disagree with USDA’s decision and reasoning.
Through the passage of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (H.R. 6201), Congress explicitly granted USDA the authority to waive any requirement or any regulation for purposes of providing meals during COVID-19 school closures. Last March, when coronavirus forced schools to shut down or move online, USDA used this authority to allow thousands of California schools and community-based organizations to more efficiently serve school meals through summer meal programs. Now, USDA appears to be drawing a distinction between the emergency closures in the spring with districts’ plans to close down their physical campuses and balance remote learning, hybrid schedules, and public health orders. USDA’s decision comes even as concerned lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and thousands of community advocates have pressed USDA for these continued flexibilities.
Unfortunately, with this decision USDA has undermined their own efforts to protect the health and well-being of students. The decision to transition back to the requirements of the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs will be a direct burden on families and school nutrition programs. Schools will lose the efficiency and efficacy of “grab and go” models that have served children since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis and California’s students will have decreased access to universally-free school meals.
USDA’s decision was announced the same week that they extended four nationwide summer meal waivers through September 30th. Unfortunately, the waiver extensions will have a minimal impact on California. Under USDA’s newly issued guidance, schools will not be able to serve school meals through summer meal program waivers once school resumes or if they push back school start dates. The vast majority of California’s schools have started or will start by the end of August. Of the 88 largest school districts in CA (which account for over half of enrollment), only 4 are scheduled to start on or after 9/1.
As California kids head back to school, we’ll keep working to make sure they are well nourished and ready to learn. CFPA is committed to advocating for reversal of this decision through both administrative advocacy with USDA and through legislative advocacy with California’s congressional delegation.
How You can Help
Share your disappointment about USDA’s decision with your member of congress. Ask for a robust federal coronavirus package that supports access to school meals.