The U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced it will extend serving free meals to all children through as late as Dec. 31.

The extension provides all children, regardless of income, free breakfasts and lunches through their schools’ nutrition programs.

“It’s for every child. It’s not just for students who are eligible for free and reduced meals. It is for every student,” USD 503 Superintendent Lori Ray said. “It’s until Dec. 31 or the money runs out.”

In a press release, the USDA stated the unprecedented move will help ensure – no matter what the situation is on the ground – that children have access to nutritious food as the country recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic. USDA has been and continues to be committed to using congressionally appropriated funding that has been made available.

“As our nation reopens and people return to work, it remains critical our children continue to receive safe, healthy and nutritious food. During the COVID-19 pandemic, USDA has provided an unprecedented amount of flexibilities to help schools feed kids through the school meal programs, and today, we are also extending summer meal program flexibilities for as long as we can, legally and financially,” said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. “We appreciate the incredible efforts by our school food service professionals year in and year out, but this year we have an unprecedented situation. This extension of summer program authority will employ summer program sponsors to ensure meals are reaching all children – whether they are learning in the classroom or virtually – so they are fed and ready to learn, even in new and ever-changing learning environments.”

Ray said the measure ensures all students are being fed at a time when it is being reported hunger is widespread in America as costs for food continues to increase, wages have been cut and/or jobs are lost temporarily or permanently.

“I think it’s a great thing for our students, and I think it is one less thing right now for our parents to have to worry about,” Ray said. “It will give everyone an opportunity to eat so no one will go hungry.”

Districts are required to fill out a special waiver, and Ray said USD 503’s has been approved.

“So we will start on Sept. 8 when we start serving meals, all breakfasts and lunches will be free for all students,” Ray said. “We are encouraging all students and parents to go ahead and fill out the free and reduced lunch applications, if that is something they typically do.”

Ray said it is unknown when the funding for free meals will run out and the district wants students receiving free and reduced meals to be able to transition seamlessly to receiving their meals.

“I don’t know how long that will be, so we need those applications to be filled out so when it is time we can transition into that, but also it is because the school received additional at-risk funding based on those free and reduced lunch applications,” Ray said. “Sept. 20 is our count date, so we need to make sure those applications are turned in prior to that.”

The School Nutrition Association said in a prepared statement that it greatly appreciates the USDA addressing the critical challenges its members face in serving students during the first weeks of school.

“These waivers will allow school nutrition professionals to focus on nourishing hungry children for success, rather than scrambling to process paperwork and verify eligibility in the midst of a pandemic,” SNA President Reggie Ross said. “We look forward to continuing our dialogue with USDA to ensure school meal programs are equipped to meet the future needs of America’s students.” 

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