U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced Monday his department would extend a series of waivers allowing public schools to continue providing free breakfast and lunch to all students who want it until at least Dec. 31.

Perdue’s announcement reverses an earlier decision that would have canceled the waivers that have helped allow Maine schools to provide some 12 million free meals to students since schools were closed in mid-March to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The agriculture secretary appeared to be caving to increasing pressure from a bipartisan group of congressional members, including 1st District Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, who on Friday criticized the Trump Administration’s decision to end the waivers in September. All four members of Maine’s congressional delegation supported the extension and had asked the secretary to reconsider.

Fourth-grade teacher Michelle Dunham organized bagged lunches at Farwell Elementary School in Lewiston in March. Teachers and school administrators handed out breakfast and lunches to students or to their parents. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Educators and advocates also pressured Perdue to reverse his decision.

Roughly 30 million students across the United States eat school meals. Of those, 22 million live in households whose income levels (no more than 185 percent of the federal poverty level) qualify them for free or reduced-price meals, according to a recent Washington Post report. The number of families relying on school meals has likely increased over the summer, after the pandemic stalled the economy and drove unemployment upward.

In Maine, about 43 percent of all public school students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, according to the nonprofit Full Plates Full Potential, which works to end childhood hunger in Maine.

Anna Korsen, the organization’s director of advocacy and partnerships, said demand for school meals was up 40 percent statewide in Maine and that some parts of the state, especially those hardest hit by the recession in southern Maine, were expecting demand to increase by as much as 60 percent in 2021.

In a prepared statement Monday, Pingree said it was a relief that Perdue had changed course but she also reiterated her stance that the waivers should be extended for the entire school year.

“For thousands of kids in Maine, school meals may be the only food they eat in a day,” she said. “It’s critical that the government continue to respond quickly to rising childhood hunger caused by the pandemic, and I urge the USDA to extend these flexibilities for the full school year.”

Perdue, who announced the decision during a news conference at a Georgia elementary school, said Congress, which authorized federal funding for the expansion of the programs under the CARES Act, only provided funding through the end of June.

He said he was extending the waivers until the end of December but was not certain if the funding available to the USDA to cover program costs would run out before then, noting he might have to rescind the extension if it does.

“So despite what you may have heard, Congress has not approved any additional funding that would allow us to extend these waivers through the whole school year of 2021,” Perdue said. “Additionally, offering free meals to everyone is not something we ought to have to be relying on, this pandemic is one thing and obviously Congress and the American taxpayers have been very generous in the free and reduced lunch program for years, but it’s not the time to have a new policy about that while we try to feed everyone during the pandemic.”

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said in a statement that, “Students in Maine and throughout the country should have access to nutritious meals during the COVID-19 pandemic, regardless of whether in-school learning is available.”

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