The growing spread of COVID-19 has forced the country-wide closure of schools in 22 countries. In the United States, as of March 11, select schools in California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Vermont, and Washington have closed, according to UNESCO. In addition to hampering students’ education, closed schools mean that children are deprived of critically needed nutrition. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), in 2018, school cafeterias served nearly 5 billion lunches, with nearly three-quarters of the lunches free or at a reduced price.
On March 5, the School Nutrition Association (SNA) wrote a letter (pdf) to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue asking that efforts be made to “ensure vulnerable children do not experience a lapse in food security in the event of widespread school closures.” According to the SNA, “nearly 22 million students each day depend on a free or reduced-price school lunch as a key source of their daily nutrition. SNA members, who work on the front lines in school cafeterias nationwide, are keenly aware that many of these children lack access to adequate nutrition when school is out of session.”
During an unexpected school closure, schools can leverage their participation in one of the USDA’s Summer Food Service Programs (SFSP) to provide meals at no cost to students. Under normal circumstances, those meals must be served in a group setting. However, in a public health emergency, the law allows the USDA the authority to waive the group setting meal requirement, which is vital during a social distancing situation, such as is necessary with the coronavirus (COVID-19).
On March 10, Perdue announced that the agency approved waiver requests in three states—Washington, California, and Alaska—to allow the use of the SFSP to serve free meals to low-income children affected by school closures. For other states to do the same, School Food Authorities (SFAs) must submit a waiver request, although Perdue commented that all the states “can preemptively assume a positive response . . . once a waiver request comes in.”
The USDA has yet to respond to the SNA’s letter, which offers further suggestions, including the following:
SNA letter (pdf)