Free school meals will continue through 2021-22 school year, USDA announces

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A student prepares lunch in the cafeteria during the first day of school at Stamford High School on Sept. 8, 2020, in Stamford, Connecticut. (John Moore/Getty Images)

A student prepares lunch in the cafeteria during the first day of school at Stamford High School on Sept. 8, 2020, in Stamford, Connecticut. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Schools and daycare facilities will be able to offer free meals to all children through the 2021-22 school year, after an extension of a federal program that was set to expire in September was announced this week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The extended waivers allow schools the flexibility to ensure children have continued access to free meals through June 30, 2022, regardless of families’ ability to pay. The announcement was made Tuesday.

The continuation of the program, which was first implemented at the beginning of the pandemic, is part of the Biden administration’s plan to reopen schools safely. It lets students eat for free outside of regular meal times, and covers free lunch.

“Students’ success in the classroom goes hand in hand with their ability to access basic needs like healthy and nutritious meals,” Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a statement on the USDA’s website. “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.”

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said states and school districts had called for the extension to help them plan for a safe reopening in the fall.

The advance notice the administration has given in announcing the extension months before the next school year begins is crucial for school districts, an executive at a hunger nonprofit told the Washington Post.

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

The program allows for parents or guardians to pick up meals for their children when school programs aren’t operating normally.

And schools that participate will also receive higher-than-normal meal reimbursements, which the USDA says will help them serve children the most nutritious meals possible while managing the increased costs associated with the pandemic.

That higher reimbursement rate has helped schools during the current year pay for the extra costs of packing food up to go, among other new pandemic-related expenses, according to the Post.

And having the program be universal means school administrators don’t have to collect applications from families at the beginning of the year — and teachers don’t have to try to monitor which students are eligible when meals are distributed in the classroom, the newspaper reported.

“It’s a win-win for kids, parents and schools,” Vilsack said.

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