Rep. Pressley, Massachusetts Lawmakers Urge USDA to Fully Reimburse School Districts and After-School Programs Providing Free Meals to Kids During COVID-19 Pandemic

March 27, 2020
Press Release

WASHINGTON – Today, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (MA-07), Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Edward J. Markey (D-MA), and Representatives Richard E. Neal, (MA-01), James P. McGovern (MA-02), Stephen F. Lynch (MA-08), William Keating (MA-09), Joseph P. Kennedy III (MA-04), Katherine Clark (MA-05), Seth Moulton (MA-06), and Lori Trahan (D-MA-03), wrote to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) urging the USDA to immediately grant additional flexibility to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and other Massachusetts meal providers as they administer and modify child nutrition programs to meet the needs of Massachusetts families during the coronavirus public health emergency.

"Schools and communities are acting urgently and creatively to adapt to this unprecedented threat, and we ask you to support their efforts without delay," the lawmakers wrote. "We request that you immediately use (your) authority to empower meal providers to adapt to their local conditions and needs in this unique time, and to guarantee reimbursement to all providers who are working to meet the needs of hungry children during this crisis."

Since Governor Charlie Baker ordered all elementary and secondary schools in the state to close until May 4, 2020, schools and community organizations have been serving meals to children who normally rely on free school lunch. Although these meals are open to any child in the community, school districts are currently only eligible for reimbursement from USDA if at least 50% of their students normally receive free or reduced-price lunch. In Massachusetts, 130,000 low-income children live in areas that do not currently qualify for reimbursement, and other families who might not normally qualify for the free lunch program may be in need of meals due to layoffs or business closures during this public health emergency.

On March 13, 2020, DESE submitted a waiver request to the USDA to temporarily suspend area eligibility requirements, which would allow schools and community organizations serving meals during school closures to be fully reimbursed for meals served in areas where fewer than 50% of children receive free or reduced-price lunch. In their letter, the lawmakers urged USDA to immediately grant that waiver using its new authority under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

"We urge you to approve this waiver request without delay to ensure that there are minimal disruptions to meals being provided to children in need," the lawmakers continued. 

The lawmakers also requested that USDA exercise its waiver authority to allow meals to be served under the Child and Adult Care Feeding Program (CACFP) at organizations that have suspended or modified their after-school programs to comply with social distancing requirements, and asked that USDA work with CACFP participants to provide reimbursement for meals served while programs are suspended.

The full text of the letter is below and can be viewed here.

Mr. Brandon Lipps

Deputy Under Secretary

Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services

United States Department of Agriculture

1400 Independence Avenue N.W.

Washington, DC 20250

Dear Mr. Lipps:

 

We write to urge you to immediately grant additional flexibility to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and other Massachusetts meal providers as they administer and modify child nutrition programs to meet the needs of Massachusetts families during the coronavirus public health emergency. Schools and communities are acting urgently and creatively to adapt to this unprecedented threat, and we ask you to support their efforts without delay.

The recently passed Families First Coronavirus Response Act provided the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) with extremely broad waiver authority to support local school districts and organizations in providing meals to students.

We request that you use this authority to empower meal providers to adapt to their local conditions and needs in this unique time, and to guarantee reimbursement to all providers who are working to meet the needs of hungry children during this crisis.

In Massachusetts, the need for child nutrition programs is widespread and urgent. On March 15, 2020, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker ordered all elementary and secondary schools in the state to close; he later extended the closure through at least May 4, 2020. These closures have had a particularly severe impact on more than half a million children in Massachusetts who rely on school meals through the National School Lunch Program, the Child and Adult Care Feeding Program, and related child nutrition programs.4 On March 23, 2020, Governor Baker issued an emergency order closing nonessential businesses and workplaces, leaving many residents with no income. In a single day last week, the state received more unemployment claims than in the entire month of February 2020.

On March 13, 2020, DESE submitted a waiver request to temporarily suspend area eligibility requirements, which would allow schools and community organizations serving meals during school closures to be reimbursed for meals served in areas where fewer than 50% of children participate in the Free and Reduced-Price Lunch (FRL) program. On March 24, 2020, their waiver request was returned, with a request for additional information.8 As of last October, more than 130,000 low-income children in Massachusetts attended schools that are below this threshold. This change is vital to prevent hunger during this public health emergency, as families who may not normally qualify for the FRL program may already be facing or may soon face layoffs, reduced hours, increased health care costs, and other financial challenges.

The pain of hunger does not change depending on location. Many districts in Massachusetts are proactively providing food access to all students, but they are concerned that they cannot continue doing so without an assurance that USDA’s reimbursement will cover the expense. We urge you to approve this waiver request without delay to ensure that there are minimal disruptions to meals being provided to children in need.

In addition, we urge you to exercise the waiver authority provided by the Families First Coronavirus Response Act to allow meals to be served under the Child and Adult Care Feeding Program (CACFP) at organizations that have suspended or modified their operations to comply with social distancing requirements. In Massachusetts, the Boys & Girls Club and other afterschool program providers have begun providing pick-up meals to the children they serve, but they are having difficulty securing reimbursement for these meals because they have suspended their normal in-person program.10 We urge you to work with CACFP participants to continue to provide reimbursement for meals served during program closures, just as you have worked with school districts to continue to make meals available during school closures.

We know that USDA shares our goal of providing meals to every student in need during this unprecedented emergency. We appreciate your responsiveness to Massachusetts’s previous waiver applications. We urge you to continue this collaborative partnership between federal, state, and local agencies to support our most vulnerable children during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thank you for your consideration of this urgent matter.

 

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