The rise of the Zoom classroom wasn’t the only major change to arrive in Pennsylvania’s schools last year – the pandemic has also brought a seismic shift in how schools deliver crucial food assistance to children experiencing hunger.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture this week issued a year-long extension of a waiver program that lets schools send free food home with students. Originally set to expire this September, the program will now be in effect through June 2022.
The announcement came as a relief to school administrators and hunger prevention advocates, who have spent much of the last year adapting school nutrition programs to keep children fed while schools operated virtually.
It also signaled to some that there could be permanent changes in how schools administer long-standing federal programs, which typically put strict limits on how and where students receive free food.
Data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education show that 958,000 children in the state qualified for free or reduced-price meals last year – roughly 54 percent of all school pupils.
When the pandemic shuttered Pennsylvania schools on a moment’s notice last March, “the first thing we thought about was food insecurity,” Shae Ashe, president of the Norristown Area School District board of directors, told the Capital-Star this week. “We knew [hunger] still exists, so how do we get students the meals they need?”
Research shows that school-provided meals boost kids’ intake of healthy food. But federal regulations that were in effect when the pandemic hit offered little wiggle room in how they were doled out.
The USDA, which reimburses districts for the cost of free or subsidized meals, typically requires schools to serve children their food during standard meal times and in group settings.
That changed in March when the agency announced that schools could send food home with children instead – including those who weren’t already enrolled in free and reduced-price lunch programs.
After whipping up a menu of pre-packaged food items and establishing distribution sites, Norristown’s food services team was able to hand out meal packages with a week’s worth of boxed breakfast and lunch, Ashe said.
Norristown is one of the high-poverty school districts in the state where all children automatically qualify for free breakfast and lunch. The expanded federal rules allowed them to send food home with any child under the age of 18, Ashe said, including kids who weren’t yet school-aged.
The district distributed its two millionth meal early last month, just shy of the one-year anniversary of the pandemic, Ashe said.
Over the last year, the USDA has issued a series of months-long extensions of the program terms it first announced in March 2020.
While schools were grateful for each announcement, “a lot of the time, they were coming just in time or a little too late,” Jane Clements-Smith, executive director of Feeding Pennsylvania, told the Capital-Star.
The USDA’s most recent decision to grant waivers through 2022 gives districts more consistency, allowing them to be ”more intentional into the [next] school year,” Clements-Smith added.
The new program rules also come with a higher meal reimbursement rate for schools. While unpaid lunch bills have stressed school budgets in the past, Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, said it’s too early to tell how the new rates will affect district finances.
Clements-Smith said that organizations like hers have long been pushing the federal government to loosen its school feeding rules to better accommodate children’s mercurial eating habits.
Kids are less likely to go hungry if they can take school-provided food home with them, Clements-Smith said, or if they’re allowed to eat outside of designated meal times.
Many hunger prevention groups would still like the federal government to provide free meals to all students, regardless of their household income, as a way to reduce administrative tasks for parents and schools.
But at the very least, Clements-Smith and others hope that some of the flexibility the USDA introduced this year might outlast the pandemic.
Ashe says there’s “absolutely” demand to keep the food distribution program in his district. Administrators like DiRocco say it may become a necessity as more schools operate their own cyber programs or make online instruction a permanent part of the school week.
“I think the pandemic has totally changed the school lunch process,” DiRocco said. “There’s got to be a new look at how that whole program was operated so that kids are getting their meals and their nutrition to the greatest extent possible.”