A month after President Biden pledged to alleviate hunger in the country, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Tuesday that his department is working to improve nutrition for K-12 students, including providing grants to help schools prepare healthy meals “from scratch.”
But with the expiration of a federal exemption that allowed students to eat for free during the pandemic that has been a major hurdle, Vilsack said the department is working on other options to enable more schools to offer free meals to low-income students.
A USDA waiver created by the Trump administration in 2020 and extended by Biden allowed all schools to receive federal compensation to provide free meals to all students, not just the poor. The waiver expired in June, requiring schools to show that at least 40% of their students are enrolled in federal poverty programs in order to qualify for the compensation.
The amount of funding schools receive under the Federal School Meals Program, Known as the community eligibility requirementbased on the percentage of students receiving assistance through programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
With Republican lawmakers opposing the waiver, Vilsack said his department will look for alternatives that do not require congressional approval to help more schools qualify for federal compensation for providing free meals.
“There are some administrative steps that can be taken in the USDA to make it easier from an administrative perspective for school districts to be able to qualify for community eligibility,” Vilsack told reporters at the USDA Nutrition and Healthcare Summit.
Most school districts choose to have students apply for free or discounted meals. But to provide free meals to all of their students, participation in the Community Eligibility Program is the primary option for schools, Nicholas Zerbino, a research analyst at the Brown Center for Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, said in an interview.
“A big part of what we can do is make sure states and counties are aware of their eligibility,” Deputy Under Secretary of Agriculture for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, Stacey Dean, said at Tuesday’s event. She said the agency, for example, could start checking whether schools have enough low-income students to qualify for compensation several times a year.
Dean also said the department could work with states interested in making school lunches free, such as California And the who They did so, to pay more of the schools’ share of the provision of free meals under the community eligibility clause.
In addition, the states of Nevada, Massachusetts, and Vermont have extended free school meals until next summer. A Colorado ballot would make meals free.
The School Nutrition Association has pushed the federal government to continue providing free school meals to all students.
“Research shows that students receive their healthy meals at school, and school meals have been shown to support learning, enhance test scores, improve classroom attendance and behavior, and contribute to students’ overall health and wellness,” the association said on its website.
Despite this, Dean acknowledged that Congress would need to pass legislation to dramatically increase the number of children eligible for meals. One option to do this might be to lower the minimum for schools to be able to qualify for funding and increase the amount you get.
Zerbino noted that unless the federal government or states pay a larger share of the cost, providing free meals to all students would be too costly for many school districts.
Tuesday’s event was a follow-up to another conference Biden held at the White House last month in which he pledged to do more to fight hunger in the country.
“If you look at your child and you can’t feed your child, what the hell does it matter other than that?” Biden said.
“Right now, I think we have a window of opportunity,” Vilsack said during a speech on Tuesday. “We simply need to meet this moment.”
The department has already taken a number of steps to try to improvise school nutrition, which it described as a top priority.
“We encourage the people who produce school meals to do the best job they can,” Vilsack later told reporters. “One way is to equip schools to be able to go back to the day when they make things from scratch,” he said, referring to $50 million grants The department announced earlier this month, to help schools purchase food service equipment.
The money was more than $30 million the administration awarded to schools earlier this year, including the Iowa-Grant School District in Livingston, Wisconsin. The district was able to purchase a dishwasher, which allowed it to make foods like granola and broccoli-cheese soup from scratch, according to a department press release.
The Boyne Falls Public School District, in Michigan, used some of its funding to purchase a steamer pot to cook locally sourced vegetables, including beets, beans and Brussels sprouts for high school students, the statement said.
The department also announced in September a $100 Million Healthy Meals Incentive Initiative.
The first phase of this program will give small and rural school districts $150,000 per district to improve student nutrition. Grants can be used to deal with issues such as the rising cost of food, understaffing, lack of space, and outdated kitchen equipment. The second phase later this year will, among other things, work with farmers to provide schools with food.
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