The USDA has preemptively reached out to states, while individual districts come up with unique solutions.

For many students, schools are much more than just a place to get an education. They also provide tens of millions of children with low-cost or no-cost lunches—and even breakfasts as well. As a result, school closures—like those tied to the recent COVID-19 outbreak—can be far more than just an inconvenience; they can leave children hungry.

So as the seemingly inevitable school closures have begun from New York to California, the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS)—which runs the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs—has been working behind the scenes to make sure these programs can continue during coronavirus-related shutdowns. This past Friday, the USDA approved a request from Washington state to allow school meals to continue to be served while classes were not in session, followed by a nearly identical waiver for California on Saturday, both of which last until June 30. Then, yesterday, during a House Appropriations hearing, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue further explained his department’s strategy.

Students eating lunch in school cafeteria
Credit: JGI/Tom Grill/Getty Images

“Statutorily, our legal counsel tells us that we have to be asked [before providing these waivers]. What we’ve done, because we have to be asked, is we’ve sent the message to all the states that they can preemptively assume a positive response once they ask,” Perdue stated. He also explained that the USDA is waiving the requirement that these meals be served in a congregate setting where they are legally able to do so.

Meanwhile, a representative from the FNS explained to me that the department has a human pandemic response plan in place (and available online) which reminds us, “Flexibilities already exist in some of the nutrition assistance programs that could support social distancing measures during a human pandemic such as alternatives to schools meals.”

What these waivers and flexibilities look like in reality will vary by school district. For instance, the Tacoma News Tribune in Washington reports that Tacoma Public School students affected by closures can still get both lunch and breakfast for the next day at one of three locations “drive-thru style,” as the district writes, during a two-hour period from 10 a.m. to noon to avoid large crowds. (“Walk-ups are welcome,” the district also adds.)

Meanwhile, Seattle’s King 5 News reports that the nearby Northshore School District is utilizing school busses to help deliver meals. Beyond five drop-in locations, preordered meals are being sent to 16 different school sites for pickup—and home delivery can be requested for those unable to travel.

Juliana Fisher, the district's food services and nutrition director, explained to NBC News why Northshore is taking these extra steps: “With so much going on, this isn't a time when kids should have to worry about where their next meal is coming from.”