Summer Food Service Program waivers extended to Dec. 31

The waivers permit food service providers to offer free meals to families of school-age children to last them through the week without restricting them to specific distribution centers.
By: | September 9, 2020
Photo by John Moore/Getty ImagesPhoto by John Moore/Getty Images

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is extending flexibilities through Dec. 31, allowing summer meal program operators to continue serving free meals to all children. But department officials stress they may not be authorized to permit additional spending beyond the fall semester.

USDA issued nationwide Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and Seamless Summer Option (SSO) waivers under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act last spring in response to unanticipated school closures related to the novel coronavirus pandemic. The waivers permit food service providers to offer free meals to families of school-age children to last them through the week without restricting them to specific distribution centers.

In early August, USDA extended through Sept. 30 its SFSP and SSO waivers that were expected to expire Aug. 31. The department has not indicated whether it would allow schools and sponsors to continue SFSP and SSO service flexibilities for the duration of the 2020-21 school year, stating in an Aug. 31 press release that “we are obligated to not spend more than is appropriated by Congress.”

USDA noted that its latest waiver extensions are based on current data estimations and recalculation of remaining appropriated funds to determine how far the department may be able to provide waivers into the future. Department officials said Congress did not authorize enough funding to cover SY 2020-21 entirely.

The School Nutrition Association, AASA: The School Superintendents Association and other organizations have advocated for SFSP and SSO waiver extensions. AASA sent a letter Aug. 19 to leaders on the House Committee on Education and Labor and the Senate Agriculture Committee urging the chambers to extend waiver authorities for the COVID-19 school nutrition rules granted to USDA in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

USDA’s child nutrition program waivers have given districts the flexibility for meal delivery services throughout modified school schedules or remote learning. The current SFSP and SSO waivers allow meals to be provided nationwide, free-of-charge to any family or child under age 18; they allow families to visit any food distribution site convenient to them to get meals for their children for every day of the week.

Congressional leaders lauded USDA’s extension of flexibilities. “By implementing these necessary flexibilities, federal programs that help feed students during these difficult times will remain easy to operate and free of unnecessary burden,” stated Congresswoman Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), the Republican leader of the House Education and Labor Committee.

House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (Va.-03) said he was pleased the department reversed its previous position and extended critical summer meal program waivers through Dec. 31.

“As the new school year begins with many schools in hybrid or fully remote instruction, continuing the operation of summer meal programs is essential to make school meals available to struggling families,” Scott stated in a press release. “However, this remains a temporary solution that will expire long before the child hunger crisis ends. USDA must immediately use its authority to extend summer school meal flexibilities through the end of 2020-21 school year to ensure schools can continue to meet the needs of struggling families.”

Johnny Jackson covers homeless and at-risk students and other Title I issues for TitleIAdmin, a DA sister publication.