USDA doubles down against allowing schools to serve free lunch to all children this fall

Anti-hunger advocates argue that meals are a basic need schools should provide at no cost during the pandemic. Sonny Perdue says there’s no funding for it.

The Department of Agriculture (USDA) has doubled down on its refusal to let schools serve free meals to all students this fall—despite rising food insecurity and pleas from anti-hunger advocates, school nutrition officials, and lawmakers.

“While we want to provide as much flexibility as local school districts need during this pandemic, the scope of this request is beyond what USDA currently has the authority to implement and would be closer to a universal school meals program which Congress has not authorized or funded,” Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue wrote in a letter last Thursday explaining the decision.

The announcement was prompted by a request from Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Representative Robert Scott of Virginia. On August 14, the lawmakers asked the agency to extend crucial regulatory waivers that would allow schools nationwide to serve meals at no cost to all children, regardless of whether they were enrolled students, and regardless of whether they technically qualified for free lunch.

Unless USDA reverses its decision, families will have to wait until next month before Congress even considers legislation to authorize funding for free school meals.

Before the pandemic, students had to meet specific criteria in order to qualify for USDA’s free and reduced price lunch program. Households whose annual income fell within 130 percent of the federal poverty threshold were eligible for free meals, while those that made between 130 and 185 percent of the federal poverty threshold received discounted ones. In areas where at least half of a school’s student body qualified for free lunch, officials could offer lunch at no cost to all kids. In all these cases, USDA would reimburse schools for the bulk of the costs of providing free meals.

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Then in March, as the economy contracted and unemployment soared, USDA issued regulatory waivers permitting all schools to serve free breakfast and lunch to all children, including those not of school-age or enrolled in private institutions. School nutrition officials welcomed the move, which allowed many districts to serve as de facto hunger relief organizations within their communities. USDA said that initial waivers were possible thanks to a boost in funding from the Families First coronavirus relief bill, but that it needed another infusion of cash to extend them.

This means that schools will soon have to begin charging for meals again and tracking meal debt among kids who can’t pay.

“This is a basic need for all people,” says Michelle Hammond, food services director of the Roaring Forks School District in Colorado, which will no longer be able to provide free meals to all kids under the age of 18 in the coming school year. “[Money] should not be a hindrance for our kids.”

In his letter defending the choice to not extend waivers, Perdue appeared to suggest that families would be able to continue meeting their nutritional needs elsewhere.

“I think that is just atrocious and horrifying. It just blows my mind that we can’t take care of our community.

“Americans are a generous people, and there are already opportunities for breakfast, lunch, and snacks, and weekend meals for children in need,” he wrote. But many fear that that won’t be enough.

“I think that is just atrocious and horrifying,” Shelly said in a previous interview about the lack of waivers. “It just blows my mind that we can’t take care of our community.”

Unless USDA reverses its decision, families will have to wait until next month before Congress even considers legislation to authorize funding for free school meals.

That’s because Republican and Democratic lawmakers failed to come to an agreement about future coronavirus relief last week, leaving additional school lunch funding—as well as unemployment benefits, eviction moratoriums, and emergency funding for numerous other programs—in limbo. Then they went on recess.

Correction: A previous version of this story suggested that Sonny Perdue was referring to nonprofit food distribution efforts is his letter noting that “there are already opportunities for…meals for children in need.” A USDA representative clarified that Perdue was referring to other federal programs.

Jessica Fu is a staff writer for The Counter. She previously worked for The Stranger, Seattle's alt-weekly newspaper. Her reporting has won awards from the Association of Food Journalists and the Newswomen’s Club of New York.