The Biden administration is extending its free lunch program for every K-12 student through the 2021-2022 school year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced on Tuesday.
The changes to the free lunch program were first mandated under the Trump administration in early 2020 at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, when nationwide school closures prevented many children from getting the nutritious meals they typically would receive during the school day.
The loosened restrictions not only allowed children to continue eating free lunch meals outside of the classroom, but also gave parents more flexibility and options to feed their children. The original rule change let schools offer meal pick-up times for parents and guardians, waived meal pattern requirements, and better accommodated for social-distancing protocols.
In late October, the Trump administration extended the waivers for the full 2021 school year. Before Tuesday’s announcement, the Biden administration had only approved the program to continue through this September.
“States and districts wanted waivers extended to plan for safe reopening in the fall,” agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack wrote in a statement on Tuesday. “USDA answered the call to help America’s schools and childcare institutions serve high quality meals while being responsive to their local needs as children safely return to their regular routines.”
The extension allows schools to continue using the National School Lunch Program Seamless Summer Option (SSO), which is typically only offered during the summer months, to serve students healthy food year-round. The program will have a “strong emphasis on providing fruits and vegetables, fluid milk, whole grains, and sensible calorie levels, while allowing schools to serve free meals to all children,” per the USDA.
Those schools who choose to participate in the extended program will receive “higher-than-normal meal reimbursements” for each meal served.
The Biden administration hopes to reach the nearly 12 million children living in households that face food insecurity amid the pandemic, per the White House.
“It’s critical that our efforts to reopen schools quickly and safely include programs that provide access to free, healthy meals for our most vulnerable students, particularly those whose communities have been hardest hit by the pandemic,” education secretary Miguel Cardona said in part. “This program will ensure more students, regardless of their educational setting, can access free, healthy meals as more schools reopen their doors for in-person learning.”