While districts across the state are grappling with the difficulty of meeting the needs of diverse student populations through the coordination and delivery of multimodal instructional options, many agencies are also struggling to determine how best to provide high-quality, nutritious meals to students who may otherwise go without food because school was their primary source of regular meals. Within Governor Gavin Newsom’s Executive Order N-26-20 was a directive to use continuing funding to serve meals through the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and the Seamless Summer Option (SSO) to combat food insecurity. Many local educational agencies (LEAs) operating in communities with high proportions of students who receive free or reduced-priced meals (FRPMs) have experience with the summer programs. However, agencies who have not participated in the SFSP and SSO programs are struggling to understand and meet expectations within the executive order. The speed of change and the pace of information leaves LEA staff struggling to serve their communities using the best information available during this difficult and rapidly evolving time.
Some questions within this topic were highlighted in “Updates on Executive Order,” in the March 2020, Fiscal Report, including the fact that many LEAs participate in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), but not all of these LEAs participate in the SFSP or the SSO. Confusion abounds about how meals can be served if an LEA does not participate in the SFSP or the SSO and the logistics of providing meals while observing social distancing requirements.
On March 6, 2020, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued Policy Memorandum SP 08-2020, SFSP 04-2020: Child Nutrition Program Meal Service During Novel Coronavirus Outbreaks, which authorized states to apply for a waiver allowing schools, child care institutions, and community organizations to continue providing reimbursable meals to low-income children during school closures due to COVID-19 through the SFSP or SSO programs. Within 24 hours, the state of California had received approval of its waiver application.
Both the SFSP and the SSO require a proposed meal site be located within an attendance area where at least 50% of the children are eligible (based on eligibility, not participation) for FRPMs. In order to serve meals eligible for reimbursement, agencies must already participate in the NSLP or the School Breakfast Program (SBP), and should have participated in the SFSP or SSO programs at least once in the past two years. Districts participating in the NSLP can apply to participate in the SSO program. The California Department of Education (CDE) website states that it requires an application at least 30 days before serving meals through the program for reimbursement. Because the duration of this community need remains unknown, eligible LEAs might want to consider submitting applications as appropriate. In order for meals to be reimbursable, menu planning must follow one of the Menu Planning Approaches in Title 7, Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), Part 210.10 for the NSLP and 7 CFR, Part 220.8 for the SBP. Meals may be served within the two programs to students who qualify for FRPMs and any siblings 18 years of age and under. Meal counts must be tracked for reimbursement. Fortunately, LEAs can serve multiple meals simultaneously in any of the following combinations:
- Breakfast and lunch
- Breakfast and snack
- Lunch and snack
- Two snacks
Agencies that do not meet the eligibility threshold are not eligible for reimbursement for meals served. This means agencies may choose not to participate, or if they do, they must do so with local funds.
One major provision of the USDA waiver included a set-aside of provision 7 CFR 225.6(e)(15), which states that “meals be served and consumed in a congregate setting,” in order to support any social distancing requested by federal, state, or local authorities. This allows LEAs to offer grab-and-go meals to be consumed at home, consistent with restaurants offering food for takeout only. However, should eligible participants desire to eat food on site, agencies should be prepared to provide seating with adequate social distancing sufficient for the number of participants they expect to serve, and eating areas should be properly cleaned and sanitized with additional hand washing stations available to students.
Without federal requirement waivers, options for the state and districts were severely restricted. Now a pathway exists for most districts to provide continued food security for students and their siblings. Communities hovering on near-eligibility margins (49% FRPM eligibility and below) in high-cost regions include families that face basic needs insecurities too, and we know districts, more than anyone, understand and try to respond to them. Unfortunately at this time, the options for funding are limited. With this in mind, the CDE has indicated that they are seeking further waivers from the federal government, including a waiver from the requirement that eligible students need to be present at meal pick-up.
This is an ever-changing environment and we know that our state policymakers are doing all they can to attend to the myriad issues this crisis presents. In the eventuality that options open up for districts, we will alert them. In the meanwhile, this is a moment when we need to resist parochialism to serve the needs of our community. The most current guidance can be found here.