Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack calls it "a win-win for kids, parents, and schools."

By Tim Nelson
April 22, 2021

For millions of families across the country, the past year has hardly been an easy time. Many had to contend with wrangling their kids for remote learning while working from home, and others found themselves furloughed or newly unemployed and unsure of where their kids' meals would be coming from without easy access to typical school lunch programs. 

Widespread community efforts helped to fill the gap in 2020. Now, a recent USDA decision finds the federal government stepping in to extend its support for school districts and their students facing food insecurity at a crucial time. 

Mixed race boy having lunch at school
Credit: Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Getty Images

On April 20th, the USDA announced it would extend its universal free lunch program through the end of the 2021-22 school year. That's a big change from earlier plans to end the child nutrition waiver-based program on September 30, 2021, and one that gives school districts and families greater clarity as they start to look ahead to (what should hopefully be) the first full, uninterrupted year of in-person learning since the pandemic began. 

The waiver program has been a lifeline for many families over the past year, and granted schools the flexibility necessary to feed students remotely without as many of the usual bureaucratic hoops. For example, the program has made it easier for school districts to serve meals for curbside pickup (or even dropping off at student homes), letting them help hungry kids outside of usual lunchtime hours and allowing parents to collect multiple days of meals at once. The universal nature of the program also saves schools the trouble of collecting and processing applications to determine which students are eligible, usually a time-consuming endeavor. 

The effort to feed students during the pandemic has been further made possible by a subtle but important distinction in how schools are reimbursed by the government for these meals. In a statement calling the extension "a win-win for kids, parents and schools," U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack further affirmed that schools will enjoy the higher "summer" reimbursement rates for free meals. 

What's that mean? Whereas schools are usually reimbursed to the tune of $3.60 per free meal offered during the school year, the summertime free meal reimbursement rate of $4.25 has been in effect since the beginning of the 2020-21 school year. Given the extra packaging, transportation, labor, and PPE costs associated with feeding students during the pandemic, that's welcome news at a time when school districts already have a full plate of unexpected budgetary concerns.

To those who've been involved in these Herculean food distribution efforts, the extension is welcome news. "We are so appreciative [the USDA] made this announcement with so much lead time so schools can plan their programs" for 2021-22, Lisa Davis of hunger-fighting charity Share Our Strength told The Washington Post, adding that "last year there was uncertainty, and it was more chaotic than it needed to be." 

It's unclear what action USDA will take with the program once the 2021-22 school year comes to an end, though there's always the chance the Biden administration can extend it once again should it continue to prove popular and beneficial. For now, though, hungry students and the schools that feed them at least have one less thing to worry about. 

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