Families of students who rely on free and reduced-price school meals might be worrying about the coronavirus for more than one reason.
If a COVID-19 outbreak forces a school district to close, particularly one in a low-income area, the students could be forced to miss the meals the school normally provides.
But the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the federal program that funds those meals, is trying to stay ahead of any such crisis.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue told Congress that several states have already asked for waivers related to the meal programs. Those waivers would allow schools to get meals to students without following the typical requirement that students congregate to be fed.
According to the USDA, during an unexpected school closure, schools can leverage their participation in one of the USDA’s summer meal programs to provide meals at no cost to students. Under normal circumstances, those meals must be served in a group setting. But in a public health emergency, the law allows the USDA the authority to waive the group setting meal requirement, which is vital during a social distancing situation.
“When schools close, it doesn't make sense to have to go to congregant feeding areas, because that's the purpose of closing schools,” Perdue said.
Perdue explained Tuesday that legal counsel has told the USDA it has to be asked by a state directly before it can waive the rule, but the USDA has issued a message to states saying they can assume they'll get a yes if they ask.
So far, Washington, California and Alaska have been approved to waive the requirement.
The American Heart Association released a statement about Perdue's announcement, commending him for being proactive in giving states flexibility for meal service.
“Unexpected school closures threaten to jeopardize the nutritional needs of millions of children nationwide who receive free and reduced-price school meals each day. The steps announced today are necessary to ensure essential meals reach vulnerable children whose schools are forced to shut down because of the coronavirus,” AHA CEO Nancy Brown said. “The American Heart Association advocates for policies and supports efforts at the federal, state and community levels that ensure kids receive healthy, nutritious foods that enable them to thrive. We stand ready to work with USDA and state health officials to ensure our children receive the meals they need in response to the coronavirus.”