Making sure that families know that meals are available, as well as how and where to access them, is crucial for maintaining program participation. With the switch from NSLP to SFSP/SSO back to NSLP and back to SFSP/SSO again, families may be confused about what’s going on with school meals. This Customizable Letter to Families Announcing Free Meals for All Kids was created to help schools and districts notify families about the availability of free meals for all children age 18 and younger.
For Educators & Administrators
School administrators and education stakeholders may not fully understand why school meals are so critical for students or even how school meals programs operate. The Importance of School Meals explains the value of including school meals operations as part of back-to-school planning. It also offers ideas on how to engage key staff within the schools, from teachers to custodians, in order to make new meal service models successful
Districts and schools across the country are considering a variety of approaches to their schedule in order to teach students while keeping students and staff safe:
- 100% Distance Learning: All students learn remotely
- 100% In-Class Learning: All students return to school with enhanced cleaning, distancing, and safety measures
- Hybrid Learning:
- Grade-Level Return: Younger students return to in-class learning while older students learn remotely, or vice versa.
- Targeted Return: Certain groups of students (such as English language learners or students with IEPs) are prioritized to return to in-class learning while others continue to learn remotely.
- Alternating Schedule: Groups of students alternate between in-class and distance learning every other day, week, etc.
Districts and schools may change between these models throughout the school year. And even within each model, there are many possible variations depending on the school or district's capacity and needs.
For students learning remotely, schools may continue some of the meal service models that were widely utilized during emergency meal operations in the spring:
- Direct home delivery
- Delivery along bus or mobile routes
- Walk-up distribution
- Drive thru distribution
Students in a hybrid learning model may receive meals during their distance learning days via one of the models above, or schools may decide to distribute meals for the following day(s) as students leave on their in-class days.
For students in schools, the school nutrition staff is likely considering a variety of options for both service location and eating location. Serving meals out of the cafeteria may be easiest and allow for the most meal options, but some schools may need multiple distribution points to accommodate social distancing while serving meals within a reasonable time frame. These schools may consider grab-n-go meals from kiosks in hallways or other common areas, or direct delivery to classrooms.
Meal Service Options for School Year 2020-2021 provides additional details and helpful graphics to illustrate these possible models.
On August 31, the USDA announced the extension of several key summer meals waivers and provided the option to utilize the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) or the Seamless Summer Option (SSO) through December 31, 2020. This allows schools and non-school sponsors to operate the summer meals programs, which will ease administrative burdens, simplify counting and claiming, and enhance access to meals, especially in communities implementing distance learning or hybrid schedule models. These waivers and waiver extensions are detailed in our Summary of Current COVID-19 Child Nutrition Response Waivers.
Additionally, the nationwide waivers currently available to support operations through June 30, 2021 are:
- Non-Congregate Meal Service Waiver for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), School Breakfast Program (SBP), and Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP)
- Meal Service Time Waiver for the NSLP, SBP, and CACFP.
- Parent/Guardian Meal Pick-Up Waiver for the NSLP, SBP, and CACFP
- Meal Pattern Waiver for the NSLP, SBP, and CACFP
- Offer Versus Serve Requirement Waiver for High Schools in the NSLP
- Onsite Monitoring Requirements in the School Meals Programs
Additionally, onsite monitoring requirements have been waived in the CACFP and SFSP through September 30, 2021. The USDA has also begun approving state-requested Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Program (FFVP) waivers and Provision 2 flexibility waivers (listed under "Additional Flexibilities"). Recent waiver extension announcements relating to the SFSP only support schools and non-profit sponsors in areas where the start of the school year is sometime in September.
We’ve created a number of resources to help school nutrition staff plan for meal service operations under a variety of scenarios, which reflect the changes in place for the 2020-2021 school year aimed at keeping students and staff safe amidst the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Our Back-to-School Meal Service Toolkit sets the stage by offering tips for beginning your planning process and explaining the waivers available. For those districts looking for support with financial recovery, it offers information about FEMA Public Assistance Grants, CARES Act funds and other strategies for increasing revenue and avoiding further debt. Lastly, the toolkit dives into details about meal service models—both for meals consumed at school and meals taken to-go. A number of other helpful resources are embedded within the toolkit.
For most schools, meal service looks very different now than it has in the past. Our Equipment List for Meal Service SY20-21 highlights new and existing equipment items that can be used to serve meals to students in classrooms, hallways, the cafeteria, or to go home throughout the existing pandemic environment. Equipment Tips for Serving Meals in the Classroom offers guidance as schools consider how to handle meal delivery, in or to the classroom.
The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) is a special school meal funding option of the National School Lunch Act that enables schools to provide free meals to all students. Just like textbooks and desks, under CEP, school meals are available to all students at no cost to them. And in the era of COVID-19, CEP can help support school nutrition departments as schools work to find new ways to feed students.
CEP benefits students and schools. Kids get free meals, and when a child’s nutritional needs are met, they do better in school. CEP can reduce financial strain at home for families facing economic hardship due to COVID-19 and/or systematic inequalities. CEP promotes equity by eliminating the out-of-pocket costs for families and reducing stigma for school meals programs.
CEP is good for schools, too. It reduces administrative burden by eliminating school meals applications, counting and claiming by fee category, and unpaid meal charges. That's right - no unpaid meal charges under CEP! School nutrition staff are able to streamline meal service, making it easier to implement innovative service models, like meals in the classroom and hybrid schedules. These benefits taken together often result in CEP generating revenue for school nutrition budgets - CEP schools eliminate many overhead costs, eliminate school meal debt, and increase participation. Moreover, CEP is a 4-year cycle, meaning that adopting CEP this year can help a school's nutrition budget recover post-pandemic.
Learn more about CEP, including eligibility and applications, program operations, and FAQs, on our dedicated CEP page. Have questions or need extra support? Email us at email@example.com - we are here to help.
Once the school year begins in a community, both school and non-school sponsors have the opportunity serve meals and snacks through the CACFP At-Risk Afterschool Meals component, whether alone or in conjunction with the summer meals programs or school meals programs. Additionally, schools serving meals through NSLP can offer afterschool snacks through NSLP.
Although the afterschool enrichment waiver issued in the spring has not been extended, recent USDA guidance permits virtual and take-home activities. (See Question #19 in the USDA's recent Q&A memo.) Combined with the extension of the non-congregate, meal service time, and parent or guardian meal pick-up waivers for the CACFP and NSLP, this permits bulk meal distribution for off-site consumption. Please note, however, that guidance from USDA indicates that the meal service time waiver does not allow for meal distribution during the school day. Additionally, please work with your state agency regarding expectations for attendance records.
If you're looking for ideas on virtual activities, we have compiled suggestions and links to last six weeks.
Our Back-to-School Resource Tracker includes three tabs: one for school nutrition resources, one for general education resources, and another for out-of-school-time programs. The school nutrition tab includes a dozens of tools developed by partners like the School Nutrition Association, LunchAssist, the Institute for Child Nutrition, and many more. The education tab includes recommendations from national organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics, resources on topics like trauma and social-emotional learning in response to the pandemic, and trackers that are logging state back-to-school plans. This Google spreadsheet is locked and cannot be edited. However, you can still sort, filter, and search to find the resources of interest to you.