With fall school schedules uncertain because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is giving school districts flexibilities in how they serve school meals.
The USDA is providing flexibilities around meal patterns, group-setting requirements, meal times, and parent/guardian pick-up of meals for students to address anticipated changes for the coming school year, according to a news release.
The waivers for school meals have mostly been in place since COVID-19 hit, said Mollie Van Lieu, senior director of nutrition policy for the United Fresh Produce Association.
A new waiver allows high schools to opt out of the “offer versus serve” regulation in schools. That regulation basically states that schools must give students several choices for their meals, and the students are required to pick five components, one of which has to be fruits and vegetables.
Because schools are being encouraged by health officials to give students pre-plated meals, it is harder for schools to offer students a lot of choices.
Van Lieu said produce operators serving school districts must talk with school foodservice officials because there could be a wide range in what will be needed from suppliers.
“As you’re seeing certain perceived increase in cases, it’s absolutely going to impact going back to school, and what meal service looks like,” she said. “So it really varies state by state, and (communication) will be incredibly important for those in our industry who serve schools.”
While self-serve salad bars won’t be available in schools, Van Lieu said there is a lot of conversation about continuing to give choices in what types of fruits and vegetables they eat.
“The whole reason salad bars became popular is to give kids a choice, to give them a wide variety,” she said. Innovative school districts are exploring how to give kids the ability to choose what goes into their pre-plated salads, she said.
Details on waivers
The waivers, according to the USDA, give states, schools and childcare providers time to plan for how they will serve children in the fall for the School Breakfast Program and National School Lunch Program for the 2020-2021 school year. In addition, the waivers allow providers in the Child and Adult Care Food Program to tailor operations to serve children in their care.
USDA also announced a new flexibility that waives the requirement for high schools to provide students the option to select some of the foods offered in a meal.
While this practice, known as “offer versus serve” is encouraged, social distancing or meals-in-the-classroom models would make this regulatory requirement difficult, according to the release.
The waivers remain in effect through June 30, 2021, and allow:
- Meals that do not meet normal meal pattern requirements when necessary to keep children fed;
- Meals to be served outside of group settings and standard times to allow grab-and-go and other options; and
- Parent/guardian pick-up of meals for students participating in distance learning.
The new waiver applies to the lunch program’s “offer versus serve” requirement for high schools, which would be difficult to execute while maintaining social distancing, particularly if meals are prepackaged for in-classroom or grab-and-go service.
The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service previously extended numerous waivers through the summer months to give summer program operators the continued flexibility they need to leverage innovative solutions in support of social distancing — such as delivery and grab and go — without interruption. These waivers ensure all children can access free meals throughout the summer. Families can use the Food Nutrition Service Meals for Kids interactive site finder to locate free meals for children ages 18 and under this summer at 67,000 sites across the nation.