Pittsburgh Post Gazette

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Agriculture has extended waivers that allow children to receive school meals potentially through the end of the year, after lawmakers expressed concerns about the expiration of the waivers and as school districts attempt to welcome back students.

The department, citing the “unprecedented” nature of the continuing pandemic, said it extended nationwide waivers for the Summer Food Service Program and Seamless Summer Option through the end of 2020 — or until available funding runs out. Officials made clear Congress would need to approve more funding for the program to continue beyond that point.

The waivers, among other things, allow meals to be served in all areas and at no cost; permit meals to be served outside of certain group settings and meal times; and allow parents and guardians to pick up meals for their children. Put together, they likely will provide some breathing room for Pittsburgh-area officials who had expressed concerns last week.

“This extension of summer program authority will employ summer program sponsors to ensure meals are reaching all children — whether they are learning in the classroom or virtually — so they are fed and ready to learn, even in new and ever-changing learning environments,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement.

The announcement came as the waivers were set to expire on Aug. 31. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill had urged the Agriculture Department to extend the waivers to provide certainty and lower the administrative burden on school districts reopening their classrooms in the coming weeks. 

Congress, in one of the COVID-19 relief bills passed in March, granted the Agriculture Department authority to provide flexibility on normally stringent rules governing school lunches. 

A key component of the summer meal program waivers allowed community organizations to distribute meals, which would allow families without transportation or working parents with difficult schedules to continue to access meals.

“This has reduced the overall burden on schools and has been critical to meeting the varied needs in local communities,” the two top Congressional Democrats on education issues, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., wrote in a letter on Aug. 14.

Another letter last week signed by the Pennsylvania Democratic delegation in Congress asked the department to extend the waivers through the end of the 2020-2021 school year. All nine House Democrats joined Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and one Republican, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Bucks.

“With the countless uncertainties that children are now facing, they should never have to face with the uncertainty of not knowing where or how they will receive their next meal,” the lawmakers wrote in the Aug. 27 letter.

Rep.Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, posted an approving message Tuesday on his Twitter account.

“Very pleased to see that @USDA reversed itself in response to the letter members of #PA’s Congressional Delegation sent urging it to continue supporting emergency measures to feed hungry children during the #COVID19 #pandemic,” Mr. Doyle tweeted.

The department, however, suggested it would need more funding from Congress to facilitate school lunches. It could run out of money before the end of the year if Congress does not extend funding as part of another COVID-19 relief bill. Talks over the last two months have failed to produce a deal.

The department said it has funded meal service across the country at nearly 80,000 sites over the last six months.

Basing its projections on outdated state data from April, the department estimated it could have enough funding to provide meals through the remaining months of 2020. It pledged to “continue to actively monitor this rapidly evolving situation and continue to keep Congress informed of our current abilities and limitations.”