By:  Megan U. Boyanton
Source: Bloomberg Government

USDA Rebuffs Waivers It Sees As Path to ‘Universal School Meals’

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, under bipartisan congressional pressure to maintain expanded food options for children during the coronavirus pandemic, rejected a move he said would amount to “a universal school meals program.”

With the fall semester kicking off both virtually and in-person, lawmakers want all options on the table if classrooms are forced to lock their doors once more—a fear turned reality over the past few weeks for schools from Michigan to Mississippi.

House Education and Labor Chairman Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), whose panels oversee school food programs, have called for the extension of two programs that provide free meals to children in low-income areas when school is out. 

The Summer Food Service Program and the Seamless Summer Option operate not only over summer break, but also during unanticipated closures, such as when schools shuttered in the spring due to Covid-19 outbreaks.

Perdue rejected the request to renew all nationwide waivers for unexpected closures through the next school year. “Americans are a generous people, and there are already opportunities for breakfast, lunch, and snacks, and weekend meals for children in need,” he said in a Thursday letter.

“While we want to provide as much flexibility as local school districts need during this pandemic, the scope of this request is beyond what USDA currently has the authority to implement and would be closer to a universal school meals program which Congress has not authorized or funded,” Perdue added.

An ‘Irresponsible’ Decision

“The tragic rise in child hunger across the country will surely get worse,” Scott said in a Thursday statement. He called Perdue’s decision “irresponsible.”

The Agriculture Department can extend the waivers under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (Public Law 116-127), Scott and Stabenow said in an Aug. 14 letter.

Perdue countered that his agency continues to “utilize all options within our statutory and budget authority and with the funding that Congress provided” with the third coronavirus stimulus law (Public Law 116-136). He offered the department’s technical assistance if Congress were to pursue an expanded program. 

The Trump administration has issued extensions for other nationwide waivers, allowing meal service outside of traditional times and in nongroup settings for the 2020-2021 school year. The USDA didn’t renew a waiver for the area eligibility requirement, which limits “open site” meal service for summer meals programs to places where at least half the children are in low-income households.

Democrats aren’t alone in calling for action by the Agriculture Department. Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) spearheaded a letter Monday from 20 GOP senators asking Perdue to use waivers, grants, or reimbursements to allow schools and sponsor organizations to feed students learning both in-person and remotely.

“As the school year begins, the challenges brought on by the COVID emergency persist,” they wrote. 

Expanded food options have “broad bipartisan support,” said Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.), an Agriculture Committee member who signed a similar July 29 letter from more than 30 senators, including Susan Collins (R-Maine).