October 14, 2020

October 12–16 is National School Lunch Week (NSLW), an annual weeklong celebration promoting the importance of school lunch and its impact on children both in and out of the classroom. NSLW may look very different this year, but school meals are more important than ever.

As communities continue to respond to COVID-19, many school districts are using a range of virtual learning, staggered schedules, and hybrid models of virtual and in-classroom instruction. This means that many children are not physically in the classroom five days a week, with traditional access to school breakfast and lunch. Even in schools operating a normal school schedule, school lunch often looks different as many schools rethink the use of their cafeteria due to social distancing.

In light of the ongoing public health crisis, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has issued and extended critical child nutrition waivers and flexibilities to ensure access to school meals regardless of what the school day looks like, such as allowing meals to be taken home and for parents or guardians to pick up meals for their children, which grants      flexibility in terms of meal service times and in meeting the meal pattern, and allows multiple days’ worth of meals to be distributed at one time. In addition, the area eligibility waiver allows schools (and community-based organizations) to offer meals to all students at no charge, while easing the administrative burden on schools.

The most recent extension of waivers by USDA allows schools and community-based organizations to operate the Summer Nutrition Programs through June 2021. This will effectively reduce stigma; reduce the administrative burden; allow efficient meal distribution at the location that makes the most sense for families; support non-school sponsors that care for school-age children during remote learning days; and provide a level of reimbursement that is more commensurate with the costs of the service models required during a pandemic.

More simply, these waivers ensure school nutrition departments and community sponsors have the consistency needed to effectively plan and continue meal service for millions of children across the country during an unprecedented time.

School nutrition directors shared the importance of the waiver extension on a recent FRAC webinar:

“My staff are boots on the ground rain or shine  105 degrees, they are there to serve kids. We have many families, including grandparents, who bring kids from multiple districts. Before the waivers were extended, we had to turn away some families because they didn’t go to our district. The waiver allows us to feed these kids no matter what district they attend. In our community, it’s not uncommon for grandparents to watch multiple kids from different districts, and some family caregivers simply don’t drive. We are grateful that SFSP [Summer Food Service Program] allows us to remove that barrier so we can just focus on feeding kids.” Shonia Hall, Oklahoma City Public Schools (Oklahoma)

“The area eligibility waiver has been critical for us to continue serving all the families. It has helped with technology, rosters, and families bordering our district accessing our sites. It has helped us feed preschool     age      kids coming with siblings. We don’t have to have a conversation with a family to see if they are eligible, which could potentially expose their eligibility for free and reduced-price meals, or just be an uncomfortable situation when you’re trying to hand out meals and support families. We have families in tears thanking the team for meals. We are learning as we go, doing our best, helping our families. They are navigating unemployment, school closures, wildfires, and evacuations. We are doing everything we can to have supports in place for families. We appreciate USDA’s work; it has made a difference in our community.” Holly Langan, Eugene School District 4J (Oregon)

As COVID-19 continues to impact school budgets, employment, and the economy negatively, ensuring and expanding access to school lunch — even if provided through a different program this school year — is more critical than ever. The Food Research & Action Center celebrates NSLW and lifts up the school nutrition departments and community sponsors across the country who are working tirelessly to ensure that the children in their community have access to nutritious meals and are not going hungry.