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USDA extends free meals through next school year

Credit: Courtesy of the American Red Cross

Red Cross volunteers help distribute breakfast at Los Angeles Unified Schools. The USDA announced Tuesday that it will reimburse counties for free meals provided to all students next year.

USDA officials announced Tuesday that the USDA will continue to reimburse schools and childcare centers for free meals for all students regardless of their income during the 2021-22 school year.

Meal service waivers, such as the “Seamless Summer Option,” which has allowed California counties to distribute millions of fast food to students since universities closed due to Covid-19, will be extended through June 2022, according to a USDA press release. Advocates say the extension comes at a pivotal time for food-insecure families.

“At a time when millions of families continue to face financial stress, hunger and hardship, these exemptions allow schools to reach more children with the food they need,” said Lisa Davis, vice president of the national organization Share Our Strength. “With them, schools can bypass red tape and let kids eat for free.”

In addition to the flexibility of not having to check students’ income eligibility for free meals, districts can set up flexible meal times based on students’ schedules and needs. Districts can also provide meals to students outside of normal school hours and deliver meals to students’ homes or other locations rather than requiring them to bring food to schools.

States and counties wanted to extend waivers to plan for a safe reopening in the fall; The USDA has responded to the call to help US schools and childcare institutions provide high-quality meals while responding to their local needs as children safely return to their usual routines,” USDA Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said in a press release. “This action also increases the rate of reimbursement to school meal operators so that they can serve healthy foods to our children. It’s a win for kids, parents and schools.”

Districts are typically only compensated for free meals provided to students who qualify and participate in the USDA National School Lunch Program. Statewide, 3.9 million students, 63% of students in California, participated in the program in the 2019-2020 school year.

But some district officials and child hunger experts say the number of families needing food assistance in both the East Bay and across the state is actually much higher. This is because many families avoid the application process for the National School Lunch Program out of embarrassment or privacy concerns.

Not having to verify student eligibility has made serving takeaways during the pandemic much easier for areas like the Fresno Unified School District, which was serving about 20,000 meals a day during the summer of 2020, said Karen Temple, chief operating officer.

Extending the waivers now gives schools time to plan and budget appropriately for meal programs for the coming year, said Davis, who shares our strengths, so that they can operate “effectively, efficiently and with the stability needed to support local economies.”

Advocates at the state and federal levels are pushing to make universal free meals a regular feature in schools. State Senator Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, introduced SB 364 last month, which will guarantee free meals to all students starting in the 2022-23 school year. The Senate Human Services Committee heard the bill Tuesday afternoon.

When the Auckland Unified School District introduced Free mealsOur participation numbers increased, providing us with much-needed revenue, said Auckland Consolidated Director Kela Johnson Trammell, in a statement supporting SB 364. meals as a reliable source of nutrition for their children.”

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