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Delegation encourages USDA to continue food program

U.S. senators Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine (both D-VA) sent a letter to ensure that children in Virginia have access to healthy foods during the COVID-19 pandemic, when they may be participating in distance learning from home and therefore unable to easily access school-provided breakfast and lunch.

The letter to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue was also signed by U.S. representatives Robert Wittman (R-VA), Gerry Connolly (D-VA), Don Beyer (D-VA), A. Donald McEachin (D-VA), Elaine Luria (D-VA), and Jennifer Wexton (D-VA). The members of Congress requested that the USDA extend and approve a number of waiver requests made by the commonwealth of Virginia that would help deliver food to Virginia children during the pandemic.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has forced school districts across the country to adopt online and distance-learning models in order to continue educational instruction for students. This shift, while necessary, has disrupted the ability of many students to receive consistent access to healthy meals. For many children, the breakfasts and lunches they receive at school may be the only healthy and regular meals they receive during the week,” wrote the members of Congress. “In light of the unprecedented challenges faced by school districts in Virginia and across the country, we request that the USDA extend the following waivers to ensure school districts have the certainty they need to continue providing students with healthy and nutritious meals.”

Throughout the pandemic, Virginia’s 132 school divisions have continued to provide meals for students through a number of meal service options. However, this shift has increased costs for schools, who are also facing decreased revenues due to diminished levels of participation in meal programs, as well as increased costs related to the need for more shelf-stable foods, packaging, and personal protective equipment. Specifically, participation in the school breakfast program has decreased by 35 percent and the number of school lunches served has dropped by 60 percent.

In order to ensure the uninterrupted and safe distribution of meals to Virginia’s students, the members of Congress requested that the USDA extend waivers for the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and the Seamless Summer Option (SSO) until at least June 30, 2021 so that all students can have safe and efficient access to breakfast and lunch. The members of Congress also asked for an extension of the Area Eligibility waiver, which would continue to allow school districts to provide nutritious meals to all students regardless of their ability to pay, as well as increase critically-needed reimbursements to school divisions and eliminate burdensome paperwork requirements that affect the ability of schools to provide meals to students.

In their letter, the members of Congress also urged the USDA to approve the following outstanding waiver requests from the Virginia Office of School Nutrition Programs:

• A waiver to extend the cycle of administrative reviews for the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and the At Risk Portion of the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) for all school districts from once during a three-year period to once every five years to allow flexibility to plan during the pandemic.

• A waiver to eliminate the requirement that afterschool programs must have an educational or enrichment activity with the service of meals.

• A waiver to eliminate the requirement that potable water be available or accessible to children during meal service during breakfast in the cafeteria and lunch.

In May, following pressure by Sens. Warner and Kaine, USDA formally authorized Virginia’s request to participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Online Purchasing Pilot Program, which allows SNAP recipients to order their groceries online amid the current health crisis. In March, the senators also successfully pushed USDA to waive a requirement that needlessly forced children to physically accompany their parent or guardian to a school lunch distribution site in order to receive USDA-reimbursable meals. Additionally, the senators previously secured Virginia’s USDA Disaster Household Distribution Program designation, which allows food banks to distribute USDA foods directly to Virginia families in need while limiting interactions between food bank staff, volunteers, and recipients.