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When School is Virtual, Pennsylvania Kids Still Rely on School Meals to Thrive

Tags: Agriculture
August 20, 2020 02:00 PM

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Nutritious food is one of the building blocks for a student to succeed academically, socially, and emotionally.

The pandemic has only elevated that for many students, their most reliable meals come from the national school breakfast and school lunch programs during the school year and the Summer Food Service Program bridging the gap during the summer months.​

With our partners, like the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture and Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, food banks and education communities, the Pennsylvania Department of Education is committed to ensuring all children and students have access to healthy meals.

When COVID-19 triggered the statewide school closure last spring, working together and using federal waivers, more than 24 million meals were served to Pennsylvania students to ensure they maintained access to life-sustaining meals.

These meals were available due to many United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) waivers and provisions that enabled all children, regardless of where they attended school or of school age, to access meals at available meal service locations.

Unfortunately, USDA has only extended a limited number of these waivers and has established that once the school year begins, whether virtual/remote, in person, or a blended (or hybrid) model, meal service for school aged children must resume back to normal requirements, except for allowing meals to be served and taken off site.

This would have a catastrophic impact on Pennsylvania’s students and families.

Without an extension of waivers, only children enrolled in a specific school or school district will be able to access meals there. And meals will no longer be available for younger siblings that are not school-aged, and schools will not be able to serve students that are not enrolled with them – not extending the COVID-19 related flexibility in feeding will create barriers to the nutrition that these students need to grow and learn, and that they depend on.

USDA has also established that the eligibility determination requirements for the National School Lunch Program must resume at pre-COVID levels – this means that students must be determined as being eligible for paid, free, or reduced-price meals according to federal income eligibility guidelines. This is unlike meal service since March and throughout the summer, all meals were served at no cost. 

This is detrimental to the families who may have never applied for these programs, because they never qualified.

The Wolf Administration has been calling on our federal government to extend the current provisions, flexibilities, and waivers - because our students and their families need these flexibilities to be maintained.

Schools are strongly encouraged to consider the nutritional needs of their students during these strenuous economic times since nutrition, a basic necessity, is fundamental to supporting the educational outcome of students and ensure meals access to meal are provided to all students each instructional day. 

Families are encouraged to utilize the social service benefit network. Due to the economic hardships that exist as a result of COVID-19, families that previously did not qualify for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) may now find they are eligible due to changes in their household economics.

Likewise, families that did not previously qualify for free or reduced meals, may find they now qualify. 

The domino effect is that families that qualify for SNAP are automatically qualified for free or reduced-price meals through the National School Lunch Program, but even if families don’t qualify for SNAP, they may still qualify for free or reduced price meals. 

Parents may apply for free or reduced-price meals through their school or via COMPASS.

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