Lawmakers call for extension of USDA nutrition waivers | Local News - freetxp

Lawmakers call for extension of USDA nutrition waivers | Local News

MURRAY Due to the impact of COVID-19 on schools’ abilities to provide quality meals to students through the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and other associated child nutrition programs, the US Department of Agriculture stepped in to help. Recognizing that schools were hampered by the strict regulations associated with administering the programs and needed flexibility to be able to meet the dietary needs of children, the USDA granted waivers allowing schools to use other established programs with less stringent requirements related to who, how, what and where meals are provided.

A bipartisan bill was introduced in the US House of Representatives in early February that would extend the USDA’s authority to grant or extend waivers related to child nutrition programs beyond the current school year. Currently, the waivers are set to expire on June 30, 2022. The bill, which has been referred to the House Committee on Education and Labor, seeks to extend the expiration date to June 30, 2023.

In an effort led by Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM), 30 Senate Democrats sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) on Thursday requesting the inclusion of a provision to extend USDA’s waiver-granting authority in the upcoming omnibus spending bill. The senators suggested an even longer extension that would not expire until Sept. 30, 2023.

April Adams, food service director for the Murray Independent School District, explained how MISD has used the various programs to meet the needs of students. When the district switched to virtual learning in March 2020, it also switched from the NSLP to the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP).

“That was a quickest and easiest switch over forwthe federal and state because a lot of us already run that during the summer, so we were familiar with the program. We already had applications in for the program,” she explained. “During the summers (under the SFSP) we are allowed to feed any child 18 and under a free meal. That’s also why this program was used. We weren’t just serving Murray students; we served any kid 18 or younger starting March 2020 and through July 2021.”

Adams said that in August 2021, the Kentucky Department of Education provided schools the option of going back to the NSLP or participating in the Seamless Summer Option (SSO). Unlike the NSLP, which requires that students be visually present in the building to receive a meal, the SSO allows the option for “meals out the door” for virtual students. However, unlike the SFSP, under the SSO, schools are only allowed to serve students attending their district and are not allowed to serve any child 18 and under.

“If we had gone with NSLP, we would’ve had to do our regular free, reduced and paid, taken applications, and it would be based on your income. The federal government gave us the option of doing the SSO, which has a higher reimbursement rate per meal, similar to SFSP, where NSLP is a lower reimbursement rate,” Adams explained. “Obviously, that was an easy choice – all students would be free, plus we would get a higher reimbursement rate.

Unfortunately, our district does not qualify for all free meals (under NSLP). Calloway does; we do not. Our free and reduced-price numbers are not high enough for us to qualify for ‘all free’,” she said. “It’s good that most of our families don’t need that kind of assistance, but it limits what we can do as far as offering all free meals.”

If the USDA’s waiver-granting authority is not extended, schools will have to return to the NSLP for the 2022-23 school year. Whether schools will be able to provide free lunches is in the hands of congress. Some national organizations, including the National Education Association, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, YMCA of the USA, Boys and Girls Clubs of America and the American Medical Association, joined in sending a letter to the respective House and Senate Appropriations Committees as well as the House and Senate Subcommittees on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies requesting congressional action to extend the waivers. Adams suggests that citizens join in such advocacy efforts.

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