School Nutrition Round-up

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School Nutrition Round-up

This post is longer than our usual blog content, as we are doubling down on the important issue of school nutrition and the ability of LEAs to continue to serve students during the pandemic.
 
As administrators, parents, and students gear up for one of the most memorable starts to the school year in recent times, school nutrition advocates are also beginning to sound the alarm on the impending threats to districts' ability to operate the federal school meals programs this fall. Although AASA has highlighted some of the issues and recent work around the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture's (USDA) COVID-19 related waivers and flexibilities, considering the recent and drastic changes to the school nutrition policy landscape, we felt that it was critical to provide an updated overview of the lay of the land and reiterate our priorities on the federal meals programs in one streamlined blog post. It is our hope that this school nutrition round-up, helps our members with their nutrition related advocacy efforts and to better engage in this space. Checkout the text below for background on the emerging issues as well as AASA’s nutrition related advocacy work at USDA and on Capitol Hill.
 
Background: The passage of the Family First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) enabled the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) to pass flexibilities and waivers associated with the federal school meals programs. Most notably for school districts, this work resulted in USDA’s (1) Unexpected School Closures, (2) Nationwide Meal Times, (3) Non-congregate Feeding, (4) Meal Pattern, (5) Parent/Guardian Meal Pick-Up, (6) Afterschool Activity, (7) Area Eligibility, (8) Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP) Parent Pick Up, (9) FFVP Alternate Sites, (10) Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) Data, and (11) 60-Day Reporting waivers. Additionally, the passage of the Family First Coronavirus Response Act granted USDA the authority to create the Pandemic EBT program. A comprehensive chart of all of USDA‘s COVID-19 waivers is available here, note this figure includes a description and expiration date for each of the department’s previously mentioned waiver or program.
 
At this point, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, has elected to extend the non-congregate, meal service time, meal pattern flexibility, and parent pick-up waivers until August 31, 2021. While these waiver extensions are a critical first step in supporting stakeholders' efforts to provide meals through the federal nutrition programs when school starts in the fall, additional flexibilities will be needed to ensure the continued operation of school nutrition programs. 
 
Districts are still establishing what “school” will look like next year, but many students will not be in the building five days a week or have access to school breakfast and lunch each day. Instead, schools across the country are making plans to implement staggered schedules, remote learning, or some combination of the two. Unfortunately, this means that communities will need the flexibility to provide meals to children at school, to send meals home with children when they are not at school, and to provide meals at community sites closer to students' homes. As such, we ask that USDA use its waiver authority to make the following policy changes for the upcoming school year.

 

 USDA Policy Recommendations:

  1. Allow the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and Seamless Summer Option (SSO) to be used to feed children during the upcoming school year. The School Breakfast and National School Lunch Programs are designed to provide meals to children during the school day at the school they attend. When schools reduce the number of days that students are physically in school in response to the health concerns created by the pandemic, it limits students' access to school meals. To prevent this, USDA should allow schools to provide meals through the child nutrition program that makes the most sense given the unprecedented circumstances.
  2. Expand the non-congregate waiver to include the Summer Food Service Program and the Seamless Summer Option through the National School Lunch Program. Schools that utilize a remote or hybrid learning model this year also will be negatively impacted by the exclusion of SFSP and SSO. Within the current scope of the waivers, schools will need to implement a system for getting meals to families when children are not physically present in school buildings, which could include requiring families to pick-up meals or schools delivering meals directly to households. For families that have children attending different schools, this could mean picking up meals from multiple schools that are miles from home and miles from each other.
  3. Extend the Area Eligibility waiver for SFSP and SSO through the school year. This provision enabled school food services to provide meals in communities that did not meet the 50% area eligibility threshold. Moreover, this flexibility was essential to reaching children who may have become newly eligible for free and reduced-price lunch when the school year was disrupted during the spring and summer months. Considering the ongoing economic impact of COVID-19, this flexibility will be critical for continued school nutrition program operations. This is particularly true for low-income and rural localities that have been disproportionately affected by prolonged closures of industry and small businesses. 
  4. Waive the Afterschool Activity Requirement for the Afterschool Meal and Snack Programs available through CACFP and NSLP. While the non-congregate waiver extension includes the afterschool meal and snack programs, it does not waive the activity requirement for providing afterschool meals and snacks. When schools closed in the spring, a waiver of the afterschool enrichment activity was quickly issued. This ensured that schools were able to easily implement meal service even as they remained shuttered or at limited capacity. 
  5. Allow districts providing meals through the Summer Food Service Program or Seamless Summer Option to also utilize Afterschool Meal and Snack Programs. This approach has been allowed through the unanticipated school closure waiver, and the approach was further clarified through Q&A guidance issued by USDA, and it has been critical to keeping hunger at bay by ensuring that children receive three meals a day. If schools were operating under normal schedules, children are eligible for breakfast, lunch, supper, and snacks through the child nutrition programs. This access should be maintained at a time of unprecedented food insecurity. 
  6. Extend the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program flexibilities and waivers through the school year. Flexibilities and waivers issued by USDA allowed schools to continue to operate this program during COVID closures by waiving previous requirements including the snack needing to be served in a congregate setting, during the school day, with a child present, and only a single serving. As a result, schools were able to provide innovative ways to serve fresh produce, including multi-day servings and fresh produce packs. USDA guidance issued in April 2020 indicated that unspent 2019-2020 dollars could be rolled over to the 2020-2021 school year. However, as many schools will still be offering alternative meal distribution in the new school year, these dollars will be unable to be spent without waiver extension. 
Capitol Hill: 
 
Considering the amount of time left on the calendar before federal legislators return home for the August recess, it is unlikely that the nutrition related aid in COVID-5 will not be allocated in time for the start of the school year. That said, AASA has been signaling our nutrition related request to federal policymakers since the start of the pandemic. Specifically, we have requested or support the following:
  1.  AASA supports the inclusion include language that extends all the waivers issued by the U.S. Dept. of Ag through the duration of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Specifically, this includes (1) Nationwide Mealtimes, (2) Nationwide Non-congregate Feeding Waiver, (3) Nationwide Afterschool Activity Waiver, (4) Nationwide Meal Pattern Waiver, (5) Nationwide Parent/Guardian Meal Pick-Up Waiver (6) FFVP Parent Pick Up  and Alternative Waiver, (7) Nationwide Waivers of Child Nutrition Monitoring, (8)  Nationwide Waiver of Food Management Company Contract Duration Requirements, (9) Nationwide Waiver of Local School Wellness Assessments, and (10) SFSP/SSO Area Eligibility waivers. 
  2. Considering the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the corresponding rise in the unemployment rate and amount of families who now qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP),  AASA supports the inclusion of language in the next COVID-19 package that would grant districts the flexibility to qualify for the Community Eligibility Provision based upon student free and reduced-price lunch data from the past three years. By including this provision in the next COVID-19 relief package, Congress will be able to ensure greater participation in the program by LEAs. 
  3. AASA supports granting additional authority to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) so that LEAs can be reimbursed under the Public Assistance Category “B” Program for costs associated with serving meals to needy students and premium pay for school critical foodservice staff (e.g., bus drivers, lunch/breakfast employees, and school custodians). 
  4. Based on early reports, we are expecting up to 80% in reduced reimbursements from NSLP and SBP due to a severe decline in the number of meals served nationally. As such, AASA urges Congress provide $2.6 billion to mitigate a portion of the estimated financial loss that school nutrition programs have and will continue to experience. Allocating these funds will be a critical step in making school nutrition programs financially solvent and to maintain the integrity of essential food security programs as the recovery process begins.
  5. AASA opposes any language that would weaken the integrity of the Broad Based Categorical Eligibility (Cat El) program in the upcoming agriculture appropriations package. Specifically, the Cat El program affords states’ the flexibility to directly certify Temporary Assistance Needy Families (TANF) students for free and reduced-price meals through their participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). If language is passed that would limit districts’ ability to use direct certification, the negative impact on school district nutritional programs will be immense. This is evident by the Food Nutritional Services’ data, which approximated 982,000 children would lose their eligibility to free and reduced-price meals through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) when a similar provision was proposed via regulation in the fall of 2019. 4 Cat El policies have been in place for more than two decades, and Congress has consistently and overwhelmingly rejected efforts to make Cat El more restrictive, including during its consideration of the 2005 Budget Reconciliation and the 2018 Farm Bill.
 

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