Nikki Fried: USDA Extending Universal Free School Meals Through June 2022

This week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced the extension of pandemic flexibilities across federal nutrition programs through June 2022 — a move that allows schools nationwide to continue serving free meals to all students regardless of income.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried weighed in on the decision on Tuesday.

“With food insecurity worsened by an ongoing pandemic, its lasting effects will be felt by Florida’s most vulnerable for years to come. Ensuring that all of Florida’s kids are fed no matter their family income, has always been a top priority. As a longtime advocate for universal school meals, I’m thankful for the USDA’s extension so that we can continue to provide access to healthy, nutritious meals, on which so many children have come to rely,” she said.

School nutrition directors, food makers and others had pressed for an extension, arguing that the loosened rules were needed as many schools still face considerable complexity and expense resulting from the pandemic, whether their meals are served in person and socially distant or packaged for caregivers to pick up.

The USDA’s decision means that schools won’t have to transition this fall back to traditional school lunch and breakfast programs, which typically provide a mix of free, subsidized and paid meals to students, depending on their household’s income level. The department is extending a slate of waivers that allow schools to get a slightly higher reimbursement rate for meals, allow easier bulk meal distribution and loosen nutrition requirements if there are supply chain constraints, among other flexibilities.

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services oversees the state’s $1.3 billion school meals program, serving 319 million meals to nearly 3 million Florida children, as well as the Summer BreakSpot summer feeding program and emergency food programs for seniors and low-income families. When schools closed due to COVID-19, Commissioner Fried activated the BreakSpot program early, helping serve 74 million meals to Florida kids from March through August 2020. Fried has advocated for using CARES Act funds to support school nutrition, and recently requested the Biden administration consider establishing universal school meals for children.

 

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