MASSENA — As it stands now, school districts would no longer be able to serve free meals to all students after June 30, but the New York State Council of School Superintendents and other national, state and local organizations want to change that.
In a letter sent to congressional leaders, and signed by 23 organizations, they’re asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture to extend the waiver that would allow districts to continue serving free meals as the school year ends and summer vacation begins.
The letter was addressed to the House and Senate Committees on Appropriations and Subcommittees on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies, with copies to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry; House Committee on Education and Labor; and the Office of Management and Budget.
“We, the undersigned national, state, and local organizations, ask you to further extend USDA’s nationwide waiver authority through School Year 2022-2023 in recognition of the ongoing pandemic, the continuing school closures, and the need for flexibility to meet the needs of students,” they said.
They noted that, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress gave the USDA the authority to issue nationwide child nutrition waivers “to address access and operational challenges created by the pandemic, allowing school nutrition programs, local government agencies, and nonprofit organizations to adapt as necessary to changes such as school closures and virtual learning.”
Now, with that authority set to expire in June, Robert N. Lowry Jr. said allowing the waiver to expire would leave millions of children without access to healthy meals. Mr. Lowry is the deputy director for advocacy, research and communications at the New York State Council of School Superintendents.
“Expiration would mean that summer meal programs would not be able to operate under the same program rules through the entire summer, forcing many providers to stop serving meals or shut down altogether, leaving millions of children without access to healthy meals,” he said in a message to school superintendents.
The June 30 expiration, he added, “would also end USDA’s ability to respond to the supply chain, operational, and access challenges that are likely, despite what we hope will be the first year back to normal school operations.”
“Moreover, it would deny schools and other sponsors options for flexibility necessary to recover from the impacts of the pandemic and resume normal operations,” he said.
The authority was established through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, and was extended for fiscal year 2021 through the Continuing Appropriations Act, 2021 and Other Extension Act. It was then extended again to June 30, 2022, through the Extending Government Funding and Delivering Emergency Assistance Act.
“Without these waivers, the child nutrition programs would not have been able to adequately respond to the fallout from COVID-19. Throughout the pandemic schools and community meal sponsors have relied on these waivers to keep children fed during short- and long-term closures, alleviate child hunger, and advance racial equity and child well-being,” the letter to congressional leaders said.