On August 14, Democrats Bobby Scott (D-VA), Chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, sent a letter to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue encouraging his agency to continue making full use of FFCRA flexibilities to provide school meals to children impacted by COVID-19 school closures. Republican Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, sent a similar letter on August 17.
As Rep. Scott and Sen. Stabenow noted in their letter, USDA has already leveraged its FFCRA flexibilities to extend waivers through the 2020-2021 school year on: offer versus serve, meal pattern flexibility, non-congregate feeding, meal service time, parent and guardian pick up, food service management contract duration, and nationwide community eligibility provision data reporting. But what the Democrat’s letter emphasized that the Republican-led letter did not, is the need to extend the following two waivers:
- Nationwide waivers for unexpected school closures that allow for the operation of the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and the Seamless Summer Option (SSO); and
- Nationwide area eligibility waivers that allow the SFSP and the SSO programs to operate “open site” free meal service anywhere, rather than only in communities where at least half of the children are low-income households.
On August 20, Chairman Scott published Secretary Perdue’s response to his August 14 request. The Secretary states that, “the scope of this request is beyond what USDA currently has the authority to implement and would be closer to a universal school meals program which Congress has not authorized or funded.” His assertion seemed to rest on the fact that program rules will change as schools transition out of the SFSP and SSO programs and into the regular school year NSLP (lunch) and SBP (breakfast) programs.
For example, if you look at the most recent extension of the area eligibility waiver, it states:
“As a reminder, SFSP and SSO may no longer be operated once schools are open for student instruction, which includes both in-person and virtual learning. Planned full or partial building closures are not considered unanticipated school closures for SY 2020-2021. Additionally, FNS reserves the right to withdraw this approval subject to availability of funding.”
Chairman Scott issued a statement in response to Secretary Perdue, in which he said the following:
“Congress specifically gave the Administration broad authority to waive limitations on school meals and empower school meal programs during this difficult time. There is no question that the Administration has the power to support struggling families by extending these waivers through the next school year.”