National School Lunch Week — October 11–15 — celebrates the importance of school meals for children’s health, growth, and learning. School meals are a critical support to children and families, offering a wide range of benefits. Research has shown that participation in school meals is linked to improved academic achievement, health, and behavior.

The last year-and-a-half has underscored how crucial maintaining access to school lunches is to alleviating childhood hunger and food insecurity. Despite the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, school nutrition programs across the country have been able to continue serving nutritious school lunches because of national waiver flexibilities, which are available through June 30, 2022. These waivers allow schools to continue serving meals to all students at no charge while also providing the needed flexibility to operate the school nutrition programs under the unique circumstances created by the pandemic.

Schools across the country are working to overcome the ongoing challenges, including supply chain disruptions, of COVID-19. This school year, schools are also operating in different ways: some have reopened their doors to in-person learning while others are maintaining hybrid or virtual learning models from last school year. While the school day may look different this year than it had in years past, the nationwide waivers granted by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) have allowed school nutrition departments the flexibility and consistency they need to plan and continue serving meals to students.

Here’s what two school nutrition professionals from Texas and Illinois have to say about the waivers.

“Garland (Texas) Independent School District’s Student Nutrition Services is extremely thankful for the Child Nutrition Nationwide waivers granted by the USDA. Most impactful is that districts are allowed to operate under the Seamless Summer Option for the 2021–2022 school year. Free meals are a huge benefit to all families in our district. Many families are struggling with burdens they did not have previously, and this waiver allows families to put their valuable time and money to other expenses while knowing that their children are being provided nutrient-dense, delicious school meals. We are also grateful for the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) reimbursement rate that aids our department with the rapidly rising food and supply costs. Mealtime and parent pick-up waivers allow us to provide meals for those students who continue to learn virtually. We appreciate the recognition and action on these very real situations. This suite of waivers allows us to feed our students effectively in these new and challenging times.” — Jennifer Miller, Director of Student Nutrition Services, Garland Independent School District, Texas

“Many of our students rely on school meals to start their day on a fed stomach, to continue their day of learning and physical activity, and to ensure that they have consistent meals throughout the week. When we were faced with a stay-at-home order, the ease of access to school meals changed, and Chicago Public Schools had to adapt to what quickly became a multi- faceted emergency situation. USDA waivers provided the needed flexibility to mold to the needs of students, families, schools and our greater Chicago community by allowing adults to pick up meals and allowing students to enjoy the comfort of school food while at home.” — Ariana Oatman, School Nutrition Specialist, Chicago Public Schools

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve, maintaining and expanding access to school lunches is more critical than ever. Join the Food Research & Action Center this National School Lunch Week as we celebrate school nutrition departments across the country in their efforts to provide students in their communities with nutritious school meals and to combat child hunger.