As Philadelphia’s school year begins Wednesday with remote learning, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has given in to bipartisan pressure from Congress and announced it will eliminate red tape that would have made it difficult for children at home to access school meals.
For the USDA, this reverses a highly unpopular stance taken by the Trump administration during a pandemic that’s plunged families into unemployment and poverty.
Beginning in March, the USDA relaxed its own complex regulations and allowed families to pick up breakfast and lunch at schools or other sites, since their children were compelled to learn virtually from home. As a result, many more children were able to eat. But during the summer, the agency said it would end the waivers once the school year started, claiming it didn’t have permission or money from Congress to continue.
“While we want to provide as much flexibility as local school districts need during this pandemic,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said last month, “the scope of this request is beyond what USDA currently has the authority to implement.”
In a stunning barrage of letters to the USDA, members of Congress disagreed, saying they had indeed given the agency the wherewithal to allow the feeding to continue.
Calling the agency’s refusal to extend all school meal waivers “baffling during this national crisis in which 17 million U.S. children didn’t have enough to eat this summer,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) wrote Perdue last month that there was no basis to his claim that he lacks standing to continue waivers. “We urge you to immediately reverse your decision,” she concluded.
Perdue evidently relented, saying Monday, “Today, we are ... extending summer meal program flexibilities for as long as we can, legally and financially.” He said the extension would last at least until Dec. 31.
Speculation has arisen that the USDA made it difficult to continue feeding kids who were learning virtually because the Trump administration wanted schools open for in-person learning. Administration officials denied that.
The USDA decision not to extend waivers was unpopular among both Republicans and Democrats, managing to unite unlikely partners such as Sens. Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) and Bob Casey (D., Pa.), both of whom opposed the agency’s position.
In Philadelphia, school officials estimated that 1,000 students would have gone without meals if the USDA hadn’t reversed its decision.
“It’s insane that we’ve been having to fight to get food easily into the hands of our children,” said Philadelphia Deputy Mayor Cynthia Figueroa.
As the pandemic raged in late winter, the USDA’s new flexibilities allowed parents to collect up to 10 meals a week — five breakfasts and five lunches — on a specific day for their children. These included not only kids in pre-K through 12th grade, but also youngsters who had not yet started school, because many of them had been getting fed in daycare centers that had been closed.
Food was available to any child, even if the families hadn’t qualified for free or reduced-price school meals. It was assumed that the pandemic had so devastated families, countless numbers had fallen several rungs down the economic ladder.
In Philadelphia, parents picked up their kids’ meals on Thursdays at 50 locations, without needing to bring their children. Students who attend Philadelphia public schools, charter schools, and parochial schools were all eligible.
In pre-pandemic times, Philadelphia public schools — with around 125,000 students — served 83,000 lunches, 53,000 breakfasts, and 5,000 after-school meals, according to Wayne Grasela, senior vice president of food services at the School District of Philadelphia.
When the USDA initially announced the end of meal flexibilities, it meant that young non-students would no longer be able to get food. Every student getting meals would have to be a Philadelphia district student only, and they or a parent would have to prove it by presenting a seven-digit personal identification number (PIN) to district workers at food distribution sites.
“We were not looking forward to the confusion,” said Amy Virus, division manager at the School District of Philadelphia. She said the number of sites to pick up meals will rise to 62 as school starts.
Anti-hunger advocates worried that not every family would have their children’s PINs. There would be language barriers. And they lamented that non-school age kids and other students would be bereft of meals. Further, they wondered, what about families that hadn’t qualified for free lunch before the school year, but do now that the coronavirus has ravaged America?
“With a flip of the switch, families would be told their kids can’t be fed,” said Kathy Fisher, policy director at the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger. “Family food budgets were crushed by COVID-19.”
Yet another problem was foreseen by Danielle Cullen, a researcher and emergency medical physician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia battling COVID-19.
“We are trying to reduce contact and transmission,” Cullen said. “Asking for PINs would have required computer verification, which would slow lines, increase wait times, and put more people at risk.”
The difficulties Philadelphia faced would have been seen also in the suburbs.
“This has been an atrocious issue that should never have been an issue in the first place,” said Blake Emmanuel, president of the Phoenixville Area School District board.
Unlike Philadelphia, Phoenixville is small (4,200 students) and largely affluent. School started Aug. 24, nearly all of it virtual save for classes for around two dozen high-needs children, Emmanuel said.
Even though the USDA was not extending waivers, Emmanuel said the district has had the means to provide school meals to all children, whether they have PINs or not.
“Nobody,” she said, “leaves without food.”