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US Sen. Stabenow urges USDA to extend food program waivers

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Wis., participates in a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 21, 2020. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Wis., participates in a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 21, 2020. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will not continue to provide food program waivers that have ensured students are fed while schools are closed during the coronavirus pandemic unless Congress acts, U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan warned Tuesday.

Stabenow, a Democrat, said she is fighting the department's decision. At the end of August, locations other than schools will no longer be able to provide government-reimbursed meals to children and students will no longer receive meals on weekends, which was allowed under the summer rules.

“This is really, really important. We are not done with this pandemic. We are still in the middle of it, and families in Michigan and across the country are facing incredible hardships,” Stabenow said during a virtual news conference in which she and other officials talked about the 30 million children in the U.S. that get government-funded meals. “Some children get their only meals at school. We have about 800,000 children traditionally in Michigan who had been in that category.”

According to a letter sent to Stabenow last week from Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, the department does not have the authority to extend the summer waivers without congressional approval and funding.

“While we want to provide as much flexibility as local school districts need during this pandemic, 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 or funded,” Perdue said in his letter. “Should Congress choose to go in this direction, USDA stands ready to provide technical assistance.”

The USDA did not return a request for further comment Tuesday.

Stabenow said Congress has not taken away the department’s ability to provide the necessary flexibility to ensure students receive healthy meals and she is uncertain where the decision was coming from. She said she hoped it was not coming from the Trump administration’s push to put students back in schools for in-person instruction.

“I sure would hate to think that somehow holding access to food over their heads, over a parents’ head, school’s heads, would be used in that process, but there’s been no deadline. At this point in time it’s a choice that they are making,” Stabenow said.

Stabenow, along with Democratic U.S. Rep. Robert Scott of Virginia, said she would reach out to the department to denounce its decision to take away meal flexibility.

As school districts in Michigan publish their back-to-school plans, more and more are transitioning to hybrid learning or completely online instruction in order to limit the spread of COVID-19.

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Anna Liz Nichols is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.