At a House Appropriations Subcommittee hearing of the on the FY 2021 U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) budget request, Secretary Sonny Perdue discussed the flexibilities available to low-income school districts that may need to adjust their food service programs in the event of coronavirus-related school closures.
Meal Service Waivers for School Closures
To ensure children who rely on school meals do not go hungry, Secretary Perdue explained that both Washington State and California have been granted waivers in recent days to allow low-income school districts to shift to a summer meal service model while schools are closed, and to waive any requirements that meals are “congregate” or served in a group setting.
Secretary Perdue stated that USDA legal council has advised him that the agency cannot extend a blanket waiver to states, so must approve them only on a state-by-state basis and only when the state approaches USDA for approval. Therefore, USDA sent notification to all states that if and when they need to seek such waivers, they can assume preemptively that USDA will approve them.
Secretary Perdue noted that the other challenge and concern is that USDA only has the authority to grant such waivers in school districts that meet a certain threshold of low-income families (i.e. those districts that qualify for the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP)). Therefore, flexibilities will be limited in areas that do not qualify as low-income. The Secretary suggested to the committee that Congress might consider enacting a pandemic SNAP or “P-SNAP” provision that was previously authorized for one year during the H1N1 outbreak, and would address broader nutrition needs and flexibilities. However, he noted that he did not think this program was ever funded or implemented during that previous outbreak.
Additional information regarding the USDA actions for school meal programs is available in this press release. The agency advises that states should submit waiver requests through their FNS Regional Office with the information provided here.
The Impact on ABAWDs
Committee Chairman Sanford Bishop Jr. (D-GA) noted his concern for able bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) who, in three weeks’ time upon the implementation of the ABAWD final rule, may become newly subject to a time limit on their benefits if they do not maintain 80 hours of work per month. He said if these people get sick or need to self-quarantine, they run the risk of losing their SNAP benefits. Secretary Perdue responded that states have already have “good cause” discretion through which they can waive the missed hours of work if they determine that the enrollee had good cause, like an illness.