The U.S. Department of Agriculture will continue to allow free meals for all students through the rest of the 2020-21 school year.

The announcement comes after the USDA had extended waivers put in place at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic through Dec. 31, but said it was uncertain whether there would be funding to cover the entire school year.

“As our nation recovers and reopens, we want to ensure that children continue to receive the nutritious breakfasts and lunches they count on during the school year wherever they are and however they are learning,” said USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue in a news release Friday. “We are grateful for the heroic efforts by our school food service professionals who are consistently serving healthy meals to kids during these trying times, and we know they need maximum flexibility right now.”

Faith Owen twists up bags of school lunches in the kitchen at Thomas J. McMahon Elementary School in Lewiston. Children take home a week’s worth of lunches, which are available to all, regardless of family income. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

The announcement means schools and other local program operators can continue to leverage the Summer Food Service Program and the Seamless Summer Option to provide no-cost meals to all children. Meals may be served outside of the typically required group settings and meal times and parents and guardians are allowed to pick up meals for their children.

About 43 percent of Maine’s 178,000 students qualify for free or reduced price lunch, according to the Maine Department of Education.

Anna Korsen, director of advocacy and partnerships for Full Plates Full Potential, a nonprofit working to end childhood hunger in Maine, said while the extension of the waivers is good news, some districts have struggled to get food into the hands of students because they’re in school fewer days per week and schools don’t have the transportation or staff to deliver meals the way they were last spring and summer.

“It is exciting the waivers have been extended,” Korsen said. “I think that will give schools a little more time to plan ahead and come up with better ways to get the food to kids. It definitely helps with the planning and we know that taking away the cost of meals takes away a huge barrier for kids and families.”

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