Supporting food-insecure families during extended school breaks

An extension of nationwide summer food service programs will allow school districts to provide free school meals to families through the end of the year, but services may be paused during extended school breaks.
By: | September 21, 2020
Photo by Eaters Collective on UnsplashPhoto by Eaters Collective on Unsplash

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s extension of nationwide Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and Seamless Summer Option (SSO) waivers through Dec. 31 will enable districts to continue providing free school meal access to families affected by the novel coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent economic downturn.

But while these flexibilities exist, administrators should be mindful that nutrition services may be paused during extended school breaks this fall as in past school years.

“It is unlikely that districts have made decisions regarding holidays and other breaks at this time,” says Scott Clements, state director in the Mississippi Department of Education’s Office of Child Nutrition and Healthy Schools. Districts individually choose whether to use the newly available USDA meal programs in Mississippi, and they choose which days to provide meals.

Local homeless education liaisons should be prepared to offer referrals during mid-semester school breaks that do not include food service.

SchoolHouse Connection Executive Director Barbara Duffield says liaisons often find creative ways to make sure families and youths experiencing homelessness get food during the summer, holidays and other pauses in school food service.

“It will be so important for school districts to take advantage of the newly announced waivers, as those waivers greatly reduce the barriers faced by so many families and youth,” she said. “In addition to referrals, this might be food delivery, backpacks full of food, ensuring families know about grab-and-go locations, and helping families access SNAP and other benefits.”

USDA’s Pandemic EBT, a program authorized under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, is a supplemental food purchasing benefit to current SNAP participants and is a new EBT benefit to other eligible households to offset meal costs that would have otherwise been consumed from free or reduced-price school meals.

Renewed flexibilities

In addition to its SFSP and SSO waivers, the department is continuing nationwide flexibilities to:

  • Extend “area eligibility” waivers.
  • Allow meals to be taken home, instead of consumed onsite.
  • Allow meals to be served in non-eligible areas.
  • Allow parents or guardians to pick up meals without children present.
  • Permit multiple days’ worth of meals that can be distributed at one time.
  • Provide flexibility in meeting the meal pattern requirements.

With these renewed flexibilities, liaisons should be aware that districts continue to plan foodservice delivery that matches mixed learning models and new school year schedules.

“We have been working non-stop since March 17 feeding on 20 to 30 bus routes,” says Donna Martin, school nutrition director for Burke County (Ga.) Public Schools. That equates to between 3,000 and 5,000 meals a day. The district has provided breakfast, lunch and dinner to students since March. But presently, the district is not planning on providing any meals during fall break, Thanksgiving break or Christmas break.

Burke County provides weekly food boxes for the 50% of its students whose families have opted for virtual learning.

“We are also sending home meals for students on our A/B in-person schedule, which means coming to school only two days a week,” says Martin. “We are sending home two days of meals.”

The Georgia district will serve in-person meals as well as send home meals and weekly food boxes when school starts.

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