States, schools finding ways to continue reduced, free meals even as schools close due to outbreak

Federal officials are seeking to make sure all students in meal programs will continue to get access.


School meals for those in need can continue even as coronavirus issues close schools, but federal officials are seeking to make sure all students in meal programs will continue to get access.

Even if schools close to minimize the spread of coronavirus, free and reduced lunch programs will be allowed to continue, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

About 22 million students receive free or reduced lunch.

For the time being, the department, which manages nutrition programs, will allow schools to use formats used in summer months and also allow meals at places like libraries and churches, Politico reported.

Typically, these meals need to be provided in a group setting, but that requirement can be waived. That's happened in Alaska, California, Kansas, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Utah and Washington state, according to the USDA. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said, in general, those requests will continue to be granted for states.

Who could be disrupted

The relief is being applied in low-income areas, Perdue said Tuesday, suggesting that other areas might be jeopardized. That's because of limitations in the law, he said.

The low-income areas getting help are schools where 50% or more of students are eligible to receive free or reduced meals, according to a spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, of Maine, who questioned Perdue during a hearing.

A California Education Department spokeswoman, Cynthia Butler, said schools can still get a federal waiver, regardless of the percentage threshold.

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But to get access to off-site meals, the USDA would need additional authority from Congress, Pingree's spokeswoman, Victoria Bonney, said in a statement. (Technically, kids receiving free or reduced lunches in all areas are eligible to keep those meals, but families in rural areas may have difficulties getting to sites, Bonney said.)

School administrators also are looking for ways to expand coverage to make sure all kids in needs can get access, according to Politico.

Perdue said the federal government would love to be able to assist and will try to work for solutions.


How some schools are operating now given closures

In Northern California, the Elk Grove school district canceled classes and activities from March 7 to March 13 after a family from the district was quarantined after testing positive for COVID-19. The district had an enrollment of around 64,000 students last school year.

A school district letter to families said meals would still be provided through a drive-through and pick-up option at school parking lots or bus lanes, providing lunch for the day and breakfast for the following day.

People have been advised to stay in their vehicles as they pass through at 13 schools, and the option is "solely for the pick up of meals," with school officials stressing that meals won't be consumed on site.


That follows guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recommending "grab-and-go" bagged lunches or meal delivery. Schools also have been advised to look for ways to continue meal programs but not have people gather in a group or crowd.