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The looming USDA deadline to guarantee access to school meals

All over the country people are getting in line — unemployment lines, urgent care lines, food bank lines. By now we’ve all seen the photo of the San Antonio Food Bank parking lot looking like rush-hour traffic; the organization has seen the number of people requesting help double to 120,000 per week. Those are just the lines we can see. 

One invisible line, however, comprises the nation’s children who depend on school meals. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, one in seven American kids lived in food-insecure households. Today, that number is one in four. Many national organizations, including our own, have successfully campaigned with grassroots and nonprofit partners around the country to open up greater access to school meals for millions of students who need them to get through each day. For many, it’s the only food source they can truly rely on.  

When the pandemic forced school closures nationwide, the USDA issued a series of emergency waivers allowing for common-sense measures like allowing parents to pick up meals without their children being present, and providing several days’ worth of meals at a time so they don’t have to keep leaving the home and risking their safety. Just this week the USDA extended many of these waivers, giving some much-needed certainty to the network of providers like local school districts, camps and nonprofits that support these kids over the summer. But there are a few critical measures still unresolved and set to expire next month. 

The first is what’s called the Area Eligibility waiver. This allows schools not technically considered as being in “high need” areas to serve meals. There are plenty of families that need support and don’t live in these qualifying communities — many of them being traditionally middle-income households whose finances have suddenly bottomed out. 

The second is what’s called the Meal Pattern waiver. There are federal nutrition requirements for what has to go into a school meal — grains, protein, fruits and vegetables. But right now amid food shortages, a lot of providers need to have the option of offering meals that fill as many of the requirements as is possible, even if they can’t include a carton of milk.  

Normally during the summer months, at-risk children face what’s called the “summer slide.” Without the reliable routine of school meals, they experience greater food insecurity and struggle to keep up with their learning. These two waivers are absolutely critical to making sure we can reach as many kids who need support as possible. 

It is mid-May. The summer meal-provider network needs certainty that the USDA will extend the remaining emergency waivers beyond next month and allow them to safely support these kids, who need them now more than ever. This isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s good economics. There is overwhelming evidence that school meal programs are directly tied to better academic outcomes for kids, and even greater earning potential as adults. Just days ago, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said that additional fiscal support measures for Americans, though costly, will likely help avoid long-term economic damage. It’s also good politics. Before COVID-19, Pennsylvania and Michigan ranked in the bottom half of U.S. states in terms of food-secure households – the same voters that USDA Chairman Sonny Perdue’s boss is counting on to keep his job come November. Now, hundreds of thousands more are likely to need summer meal assistance to make it through.   

The USDA should act now to extend the Area Eligibility and Meal Pattern waivers through Sept. 30. We have to make sure kids in hard-to-reach areas are getting the food they need to stay healthy and safe. 

Bradley Tusk is a venture capitalist and political strategist who previously served as campaign manager for former New York mayor and Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg. He is the founder and CEO of Tusk Philanthropies, which runs legislative campaigns in states to expand access to school meals for American children. 

Sheila Nix is a political strategist and most recently served as chief of staff to Dr. Jill Biden. She is the president of Tusk Philanthropies.

Tags Coronavirus COVID-19 COVID19 food banks Food insecurity Food security Government provided school meals in the United States Pandemic school children Sonny Perdue USDA

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