The Agriculture Department, under pressure from Congress and officials in school districts across the country, said on Monday that it would allow schools to provide free breakfast and lunch to any child or teenager through the end of 2020, provided funding lasts. Advocates for the poor hailed the announcement as an important step to ensure that more needy children are fed during the coronavirus pandemic.
It was a partial reversal by the department. Previously, the agency had said that when schools returned to session, whether remote or in-person, it would require them to resume serving meals only to students enrolled in their district — and to charge students who did not qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
But the department’s announcement on Monday still fell short of what advocates and many officials had been pushing for, namely to extend the special rules through the end of the school year, in 2021.
When schools shut down in the spring because of the coronavirus, the department authorized districts to distribute subsidized to-go meals to any child or teenager under 19. The change was intended to make it easier to get meals to low-income children while they were stuck at home — even if that meant offering free meals to everyone. Some districts offered meals at curbside pickup, while others brought them to bus stops or delivered them to students’ homes.
Officials in districts where schools started remotely in August said that going back to the regular rules had created hurdles for low-income parents and had led to huge drops in the number of subsidized meals they were serving, resulting in children going hungry. Unlike in the spring and summer, some parents had to go to each school where they had a child enrolled, rather than a single location, to pick up meals. And parents could no longer get meals for siblings below school age.
Lisa Thrower, a school nutrition director in Yuma, Ariz., said that in the spring, demand was so high for grab-and-go meals in her district, where three out of four students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals, that her staff could barely keep up. But since school started with remote instruction on Aug. 4, the number of meals the district was distributing had fallen to less than a tenth of what it was providing in April and May.
On Monday, Ms. Thrower said she was “elated” that the Agriculture Department had changed its policy, but wished the change had come sooner.
“I think it’s great for all food service operators,” she said, “especially those who haven’t started school yet, because I wouldn’t wish this nightmare on any of them.”
About 20 million children in the United States normally receive free lunches at school, and two million more receive meals at reduced prices, making the school lunch program the nation’s second-largest nutrition assistance program, after food stamps. (Children living in households with incomes at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level qualify for free meals. Those in households with incomes between 130 and 185 percent of the poverty level qualify for reduced-price meals, which cannot cost more than 30 cents for breakfast or 40 cents for lunch.)
When schools closed their doors in March, many children lost access to that critical source of nutrition. Then the Agriculture Department, using powers granted by Congress in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, issued waivers giving schools and community organizations significant flexibility in how they could distribute meals.
With a substantial number of schools, including almost all major urban districts, returning to school this fall with remote instruction only, members of Congress from both parties had urged the Agriculture Department to extend the special rules through the end of the school year. Of particular interest was allowing schools and community organizations to continue operating their summer nutrition programs, which fed all children under 19 without charge.
But Sonny Perdue, the secretary of agriculture, had asserted that his department had neither the money nor the authority to do that. Democrats disputed that, asserting that providing meals under the special rules had not cost any more than the standard school breakfast and lunch program, and that, in any case, Congress had given the department additional funding.
Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, accused Mr. Perdue of using the issue to pressure schools to reopen physically, as President Trump has pushed them to do.
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- Cases, hospitalizations and deaths from the coronavirus have increased at a faster rate in children and teenagers than among the general public, data compiled by the American Academy of Pediatrics from the summer show.
- Universities that are trying to reopen with in-person classes are pioneering Covid tests and tracking apps that could help society combat the pandemic.
- Privately owned bus companies, which carry nearly 10 million children to school a year, are facing an unparalleled threat to their survival.
- Resident advisers in college dorms have been drafted to enforce mask wearing and social distancing rules, and to report on fellow students who violate those rules.
Part of what was at stake for school districts was financial. Many school food programs, which rely on economies of scale to stay solvent, had already seen major declines in participation after schools closed in the spring; further drops could have threatened their very existence.
Speaking at an elementary school in Georgia on Monday morning, Mr. Perdue repeated his argument that his department did not have the authority or the funding to extend the special rules through the end of the school year, and said he did not think it was appropriate to provide free meals to all students on a permanent basis.
But he said the department had listened to the concerns of school officials around the country and, after carefully analyzing the available funding, decided it could likely extend the special rules through the end of the calendar year. He said schools should prepare to return to the pre-coronavirus rules in January if Congress does not provide additional funding.
Ms. Stabenow and Representative Robert C. Scott, a Democrat of Virginia and the chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, issued statements saying they were pleased by the change while exhorting the department to further extend the special rules.
“After a summer in which as many as 17 million children went hungry, the federal government should be doing everything in its power to address our nation’s child hunger crisis,” Mr. Scott said. He called the extension of the special rules through December “a temporary solution that will expire long before the child hunger crisis ends.”
The Agriculture Department has declined to answer questions about how much extending the rules through the end of the school year would cost. Asked about the cost of extending the program through this year, Mr. Perdue on Monday would only say, “It’s expensive.”
In Yuma, Ms. Thrower’s excitement was tempered by concerns about how quickly she could make parents aware that they could now come and get free meals for all of their children. And she wondered if the department was planning to make the change retroactive, so that her district could reimburse families who had been paying $1.50 a day per child over the last month.
“We finally are getting the word out to families that they do owe money when they come,” she said. “But now we’re going to say, ‘Hey, guys, guess what? It’s free now.’ So I think confusion will set in.”