A federal program that has provided free school meals for millions of food-insecure children during the pandemic has been extended through the end of the 2021-22 academic year, the US Department of Agriculture announced Tuesday.
The waivers, which are now set to expire June 30, 2022, have made it possible for schools to provide free meals to students with social distancing considerations in place. This includes providing breakfast, lunch, and after-school snacks “in non-group settings at flexible meal times,” the USDA wrote in a statement.
Schools will also receive higher-than-normal reimbursements for the meals they serve to “support them in serving the most nutritious meals possible while managing increased costs associated with pandemic-related operational and supply chain challenges,” the department wrote.
“USDA will remain relentless in ensuring our nation’s children get the critical nutrition they need,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in the USDA statement. “States and districts wanted waivers extended to plan for safe reopening in the fall. USDA answered the call to help America’s schools and childcare institutions serve high quality meals while being responsive to their local needs as children safely return to their regular routines. This action also increases the reimbursement rate to school meal operators so they can serve healthy foods to our kids. It’s a win-win for kids, parents and schools.”
Citing a study from Tufts University, the USDA said that in 2018, schools were the “single healthiest source of U.S. food consumed across a sample of children and adults.”
Up to 12 million children are living in households where they don’t always have enough to eat, the USDA said. In Massachusetts, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, an estimated 1 in 5 households with children has been experiencing food insecurity — nearly double pre-pandemic numbers, according to state officials.
“Students’ success in the classroom goes hand in hand with their ability to access basic needs like healthy and nutritious meals,” Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in the USDA statement. “It’s critical that our efforts to reopen schools quickly and safely include programs that provide access to free, healthy meals for our most vulnerable students, particularly those whose communities have been hardest hit by the pandemic. This program will ensure more students, regardless of their educational setting, can access free, healthy meals as more schools reopen their doors for in-person learning.”