WASHINGTON — The United States Department of Agriculture announced Tuesday it would extend universal free lunch through the 2021-2022 school year, in an effort to reach more of the estimated 12 million youths experiencing food insecurity.

In March, the USDA said these waivers, which made school meals more flexible to administer, would be extended only to Sept. 30, leaving schools and families uncertain about what next school year might look like.

Child nutrition program waivers, which aimed to cut through red tape to allow kids to eat for free even outside normal meal times, were implemented at the beginning of the pandemic, at a time when millions of families faced financial strain, hunger and hardship. The waivers allowed schools and community organizations to adapt programs to better meet the needs of children and families.

The waivers allowed all children to eat for free and outside of the traditional group settings and mealtimes. They also allowed parents to do curbside pickup of multiple days of food at once for students learning from home, even without the children’s presence, and in many cases for meals to be dropped off at a student’s home if they continue to learn virtually part- or full-time.

“States and districts wanted waivers extended to plan for safe reopening in the fall. 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,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement. “This action also increases the reimbursement rate to school meal operators so they can serve healthy foods to our kids. It’s a win-win for kids, parents and schools.”

According to Lisa Davis, a senior vice president at Share Our Strength, a charity combating hunger, the announcement is also important for schools and community organizations, giving them time to plan and budget for next year.

“We are so appreciative they made this announcement with so much lead time so schools can plan their programs. Last year there was uncertainty, and it was more chaotic than it needed to be,” Davis said. She said that the waivers reimburse schools for meals at the summer rate, which is higher than the rate during the regular school year. This is a significant help to school districts that have run a deficit during the pandemic due to increased operating costs associated with safety protocols and packing up meals to go.

During the 2020-2021 school year, the waivers allowed the reimbursement rate to schools to be increased from $3.60 per lunch served at the free rate to the summer rate of $4.25 per meal. This increase has helped schools pay for higher costs for boxes and bags for to-go options, for increased transportation and labor costs, and for bringing in temporary support and providing PPE. The reimbursement rates for the next school year’s national school lunch program haven’t been announced yet.

Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations for the School Nutrition Association, the trade group for school food-service manufacturers and professionals, said the waiver extensions are a “lifesaver” from a number of perspectives.

“Schools aren’t going to have to scramble to collect applications from families that are eligible,” she said. “At the start of every school year, this is a huge task for administrators to collect and process the applications, a task made bigger because during the pandemic there are more families eligible who may never have applied before.”

She said the waivers allow for fewer “touch points” and more social distancing, including not requiring eligible kids to punch in a pin on a keypad with their fingers. And because a lot of schools have been serving students in the classrooms, the waiver extension means teachers won’t suddenly be required to keep track of which of their students is eligible.

The waivers also provide flexibility on the types of foods served to address ongoing supply chain issues, disruptions and procurement challenges. But Stacy Dean, deputy undersecretary of the USDA, said the agency’s expectation is that schools will return to established nutrition standards and that schools need to demonstrate that they needed added flexibilities because of supply chain or cost problems.

“The goal is to meet the nutrition standards where they can. We know this works – it’s evidence-based,” Dean said, pointing to a pre-pandemic Tufts University study that found Americans eat food mostly of poor nutritional quality except at school.

Dean says that the agency is using its authority now to respond to the pandemic and that whether universal free lunch is extended beyond the pandemic is “a legislative question.”

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