Statement of CSPI deputy director of federal affairs Colin Schwartz
Today the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that, in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it will extend through the next school year nationwide waivers, including meal pattern waivers if schools cannot meet specific nutrition standards and waivers that allow schools to serve free meals for all children.
USDA’s announcement is a reasonable move during the COVID-19 pandemic. The meal pattern waivers address certain procurement and packaging issues schools have had such as providing grab-and-go meals and meals in bulk for consuming over the weekend. It is also welcome news that USDA extended the waivers that allow schools to provide healthy school meals for all.
Schools will be required to serve meals through the Seamless Summer Option which has the same nutrition standards as the National School Lunch Program, as opposed to the Summer Food Service Program which has weaker standards.
School districts will also need to submit their own individual waivers—as opposed to blanket waivers being granted for all schools in a state—if they are unable to meet some of the nutrition standards.
All the same, the long-term goal must be for schools to get back on track to provide meals that meet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans with less salt and more whole grains, and ultimately less added sugar.
CSPI also urges USDA to:
- Provide more robust technical assistance to school districts in addressing the challenges they face in meeting nutrition standards.
- Post the waivers on USDA’s website.
- Issue guidance encouraging school districts to document reasons for the meal pattern waiver. In an August 2020 memo, USDA indicated that it is no longer following the requirement under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act that school districts demonstrate some rationale (e.g., hardship) in order to waive nutrition standards due to specific COVID-19 supply chain disruptions.
According to our nationwide survey in October, 2020, nearly all state agencies (94 percent) required schools to continue to demonstrate hardship, or provide a reason or justification, to waive all or most meal components. While that is welcome news, it is unclear if this trend will continue. USDA is only able to offer targeted technical assistance to schools if the reasons for the waivers are known.