HARRISBURG (August 19, 2020) – State Senator Andy Dinniman called on state and federal officials to work together to extend regulatory waivers to ensure that all Pennsylvania children continue to have access to school breakfast and lunch programs as the 2020-2021 school year approaches.

“This year our students need to be 100 percent focused on resuming quality learning and instruction in uncertain times and unprecedented circumstances,” Dinniman, who serves as minority chair of the Senate Education Committee, said. “They shouldn’t be going hungry or wondering where their next meal is coming from. The vital changes made to these food programs in the spring and summer must be extended through this school year.”

In 2020 as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a series of data analysis reports by Feeding America, the percentage of Pennsylvania children facing food insecurity will rise to 23.8 percent – up from 15.1 percent in 2018 – an increase of 57.6 percent. Many of these children facing food insecurity rely on the national school breakfast and lunch programs.

However, like so many other school systems across the country, schools across Chester County and Pennsylvania are considering moving forward with a variety of instructional models that include blended (hybrid) or fully virtual learning. These deviations from normal operations present hurdles for providing consistent access to food for an increasing number of children living in low-income households.

One of the ways school districts were able to help bridge that gap was through waivers to the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), the Seamless Summer Option (SSO), and the Afterschool Meal and Snack Programs. These waivers:

  • Significantly reduced administrative burdens, limited confusion of where meals can be accessed, allowed meals to be provided at locations most convenient for families and helped to limit overt identification of children from low-income households.
  • Allowed community-based nonprofit organizations to assist schools in meeting the needs of children at locations that work best for families, particularly on days when children are engaging in remote, virtual learning.
  • Allow schools and community-based nonprofit meal sponsors to continue providing free meals to all children (including younger siblings of school-aged children who may not be receiving meals in a child-care setting)
  • Allowed a third (evening) meal to be provided in combination with take-home breakfasts and lunches.

Unfortunately, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, these federal waivers are now set to expire on August 31, 2020, in conjunction with students returning to schools in a variety of educational models.

Dinniman, who worked with local school districts, including the Phoenixville Area School District, to bring the issue to the administration’s attention, slammed the move.

“It seems tone-deaf, callous, or just cruel from the federal government to suddenly let these waivers expire and shift the programs back to the normal restrictive regulations at a time when everything is clearly not back to normal,” he said. “Again, with all the questions facing families and the chaotic nature of this ‘back-to-school’ season why change one of the aspects that actually seemed to be making things easier?”

The expiration of the waivers would place restrictions and eligibility requirements on where families could pick up meals based on virtual or in-person enrollment, among other obstacles, Dinniman said.

“Young children, students, and teens have been relying on these programs for months. They should continue to operate seamlessly to help make this year a smooth as possible. Don’t take food out of children’s mouths when times are tough enough already for too many,” he said.

As a result of the efforts of Dinniman and other lawmakers, Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding and Pennsylvania Education Secretary Pedro Rivera today wrote a letter to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue calling on him to extend several national waivers that provide schools with such meal distribution flexibility.

“Pennsylvania’s children have faced enough inconsistency and unknowns in 2020. These waivers are critical to ensuring school-aged kids don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from,” said Agriculture Secretary Redding. “We’ve got to provide them the necessary fuel to succeed. You can’t feed a hungry mind on an empty stomach.”

“There is a lot about the 2020-21 school year that will look different for our students,” said Education Secretary Rivera. “What shouldn’t look different is our commitment to ensuring they are provided nutritious meals to help them grow, learn and thrive. Pennsylvania’s education communities need these federal waivers to continue the important work of providing meals to our students.”