The U.S. Department of Agriculture is extending several programs aimed at allowing free school meal services to continue to provide meals to students in need through June 2022.
According to a USDA news release, the extension will allow schools nationwide to continue to serve meals through the National School Lunch Program Seamless Summer Option (SSO) through June of 2022.
This meal program is normally only available during the summer months, but will continue to operate until that June deadline, having previously been extended through summer 2021 in an announcement made in March.
“USDA will remain relentless in ensuring our nation’s children get the critical nutrition they need,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a news release. “States and districts wanted waivers extended to plan for safe reopening in the fall. USDA answered the call to help America’s schools and childcare institutions serve high quality meals while being responsive to their local needs as children safely return to their regular routines. This action also increases the reimbursement rate to school meal operators so they can serve healthy foods to our kids. It’s a win-win for kids, parents and schools.”
Last spring the federal government began rolling out emergency food assistance programs to help alleviate food insecurity which expanded across the nation as the pandemic shut down businesses, schools and severely impacted numerous community-focused, non-profit programs nationwide.
In March 2020, the Franklin Special School District distributed more than 14,000 meals in the first week of the emergency food program, using school buses to bring food directly to students as well as hosting drive-thru-style food pickup events.
By fall of 2020 U.S. Census Bureau data showed that approximately 22.3 million Americans nationwide were dealing with hunger and food insecurity, with 10 percent of Americans reporting that they sometimes or often didn't have enough to eat in the past week.
According to the USDA, 12 million of those experiencing food insecurity are children.
That need has been met with the continued work of food pantries across the nation, and special food distribution events in towns like Nolensville.
In addition to extending the school food program, the USDA is also offering schools higher meal reimbursement rates, and offering flexibilities in what and how schools provide the needed meals to continue to adapt to localized and national challenges due to the ongoing pandemic.
“Students’ success in the classroom goes hand in hand with their ability to access basic needs like healthy and nutritious meals,” Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a news release. “It’s critical that our efforts to reopen schools quickly and safely include programs that provide access to free, healthy meals for our most vulnerable students, particularly those whose communities have been hardest hit by the pandemic. This program will ensure more students, regardless of their educational setting, can access free, healthy meals as more schools reopen their doors for in-person learning.”
The USDA is also continuing additional assistance following the passage of the American Rescue Plan Act which allotted some $12 billion towards nutrition assistance of hunger-related needs created by the pandemic.
Some of those benefits include extending a 15 percent increase in SNAP benefits, extending the P-EBT program and providing additional funding for WIC programs and food programs for people experiencing homelessness.
More information about the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service and their response to the COVID-19 pandemic can be found here.