Under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, Congress gave the U.S. Department of Agriculture the authority to provide students with free meals during the COVID-19 pandemic, even if they were learning remotely. This also gave the department the flexibility in distributing the food, allowing them to work with districts and community organizations. The USDA will be stopping these services at the end of the month.
In Michigan, school districts have been providing meals for students who might not have otherwise received them during the statewide lockdown.
Coby Fletcher is the superintendent of Escanaba Area Public Schools in the Upper Peninsula. He says his district is fortunate to be able to conduct in-person classes, but says that could change at the drop of a hat.
“If we close again, the ability to follow summer feeding rules will provide both nutritious meals and a sense of stability and predictability to children who badly need it.”
He says his district was able to distribute over 145,000 individual meals to students. Fletcher explained that Escanaba is an area where economic insecurity affects almost half of K-12 students, and many families’ financial situations changed rapidly during the pandemic.
Democratic U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow is on the senate’s agricultural committee. She says the waivers expiring makes “no sense” because Congress gave the USDA permission to grant waivers without expiration.
“It makes no sense. It makes absolutely no sense. I don’t know why they’ve decided that they’re going to stop providing access to critical food for children, but at the moment, that’s the decision. And so we are calling on them to use the flexibility that congress gave them—we didn’t take any of it away, they still have it—to continue to work with our schools and parents and community members to be able to provide the food our children so desperately need during this pandemic.”
She says the pandemic is not over, and that families will continue to struggle, especially those with children who are learning remotely but rely on free school meals.
In response, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said, “USDA continues to review waivers, including extension requests. We continue to examine and utilize all options within our statutory and budget authority and with the funding that Congress provided through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.”
According to Perdue, the scope of what the agricultural committee is asking the USDA to do is beyond the scope of its powers.