USDA extends universal free lunch through 2022 school year

“This action also increases the reimbursement rate to school meal operators so they can serve healthy foods to our kids," USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement.

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The United States Department of Agriculture announced its plans to expand school nutrition programs to all students across the country.

Tuesday, the agency confirmed its plans to issue, “a broad range of flexibilities to allow school meal programs and childcare institutions across the country to return to serving healthy meals in fall 2021 as part of the Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to reopen schools safely.”

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(Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, child nutrition program waivers were implemented to cut through the red take and assist millions of families facing financial strain and hunger during the nationwide lockdown. But last month, the USDA said these waivers, which made school meals more flexible to administer to over 12 million youths experiencing food insecurity, would be extended only to Sept. 30.

The impending cut off date would leave schools and families unprotected going into the next school year.

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“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,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement. “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.”

“Students’ success in the classroom goes hand in hand with their ability to access basic needs like healthy and nutritious meals,” elaborated Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. “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.”

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Tom Vilsack, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee to head the Department of Agriculture, delivers remarks at the Queen Theater December 11, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. President-elect Joe Biden is continuing to round out his domestic team with the announcement of his choices for cabinet secretaries of Veterans Affairs and Agriculture, and the heads of his domestic policy council and the U.S. Trade Representative. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

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During the 2020-2021 school year, the waivers helped schools pay for the higher costs associated with boxes and bags for COVID-compliant to-go options, for increased transportation and labor costs, for PPE and for temporary support.

Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations for the School Nutrition Association, concedes that the new waiver extensions will prove to be a “lifesaver” for a myriad of reasons.

“Schools aren’t going to have to scramble to collect applications from families that are eligible,” she said according to The Washington Post. “At the start of every school year, this is a huge task for administrators to collect and process the applications, a task made bigger because during the pandemic there are more families eligible who may never have applied before.”

“We are so appreciative they made this announcement with so much lead time so schools can plan their programs,” said Lisa Davis, a senior vice president at Share Our Strength, a charity combating hunger. “Last year there was uncertainty, and it was more chaotic than it needed to be.”

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