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School districts express relief after USDA extension of pandemic waivers, flexible spending

Free school lunches and other meal programs, including pick-up options, to remain available through agency’s funding
Free school meals will continue for all students, regardless of income, at all schools across...
Free school meals will continue for all students, regardless of income, at all schools across the U.S. through June 2022.(AP)
Published: Apr. 22, 2021 at 9:58 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - With a new expansion of United States Department of Agriculture funding and flexibility for the agency’s pandemic response, specific to provisions for school children across the country, Alaska school districts will be able to offer further meal services to kids across the state. They’ll also now have that ability for a longer period of time.

The announcement from the USDA, released earlier this week, details how certain meal service “flexibilities” – many of which enable social distancing and alternative availability of meals for kids – are now extended through June 30 of next year.

For example, schools will be allowed to serve meals through the USDA’s National School Lunch Program Seamless Summer Option, a choice usually only available during the summer months. Schools that choose the option will also receive higher-than-normal meal reimbursements for each meal served, according to the release. The agency will also offer targeted meal pattern flexibility and assistance as needed so that schools, as well as child and adult care facilities, can continue to provide breakfast, lunch and after school snacks, whether through varying meal times or pick-up options.

“We absolutely love and appreciate the ability to have those options to be able to provide for our students,” said Alex Russin, Cordova City School District superintendent. “Not only our students who are enrolled, but other non-school-aged students as well.”

Andrew Mergens, Anchorage School District senior director of student nutrition, said via email Thursday that the move allows his department to continue to provide meals at no cost to any ASD student enrolled in a school that participates in the National School Lunch Program.

“Students who attend a virtual program that is connected to a NSLP participating school will also be eligible to receive meals,” he wrote. “Through the Seamless Summer Option, ASD will be able to continue take-away and parent pick-up meals to accommodate students who attend a NSLP school.”

Through Public Information Officer Jillian Morrissey, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District expressed excitement at the announcement.

“We were pleased to hear that the USDA is extending free meals and food flexibility for our students into 2022,” Morrissey wrote. “We have noticed in the past year that participation in our breakfast, lunch and supper programs has increased, and MSBSD looks forward to offering continued services to our students next year.”

As of this past March, projections from national Food Bank of Alaska partner Feeding America showed an increase in food insecurity across Alaska of about 32%, according to Eve Van Dommelen, the food bank’s policy and advocacy manager. One in every six Alaskans were reported as facing hunger, as well as one in every four children in Alaska.

“We’ve had a tremendous turnout from the community as a whole in terms of the food service program this year,” Russin said, “And weekly distributions of meals. Our small staff of four are putting together loads and loads of meals for points of distribution each week. On average, they are preparing about 400 meals a day.”

The USDA announcement doesn’t immediately affect the food bank, as it mainly works with partners versus individual patrons and families, but Van Dommelen said Thursday that the efforts are still helpful. Despite them not having a direct impact on operations or what’s offered by the food bank to Alaskans, the extensions provide a bit of a cushion for the food bank and its partners.

The Food Bank of Alaska also distributed 43% more food in the last six months of 2020 compared to the same time frame from the year before, Van Dommelen said.

The USDA also said that through the Biden-Harris administration’s American Rescue Plan Act, more than $12 billion in new nutrition assistance has been allocated to address hardships triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the benefits are a 15% increase in SNAP benefits, about $1.1 billion in new funding for territories that operate nutrition assistance block grants, providing meals for young adults experiencing homelessness and funneling about $900 million to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children and the more than 6.2 million people who use that.

For more information about how to access food in a specific area, visit the Food Bank of Alaska website.

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