After uproar, USDA says parents can pick up school meals without kids present

By HANNAH NATANSON | The Washington Post | Published: March 26, 2020

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The federal government is waiving a policy that required students to come in-person to pick up free meals during school closures, after legislators and advocates said the rule was imperiling the health and safety of children with compromised immune systems.

New guidance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, issued this week, allows school districts to distribute meals "to a parent or guardian to take home to their children," according to a copy of the guidance obtained by The Washington Post.

The waiver takes effect immediately and applies automatically to all states that elect to use it. Schools will need to develop strategies to ensure the meal distribution plan retains "integrity," Angela M. Kline, director of policy and program development for USDA's Child Nutrition Programs, wrote in the waiver.

Although the USDA envisioned "operators providing meals directly to children," Kline wrote, the agency "recognizes that in this public health emergency, continuing to require children to come to the meal site to pick up meals may not be practical and in keeping with the goal of providing meals while also taking appropriate safety measures."

The federal government notified school districts of the change late Wednesday night. In a statement Thursday morning, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said feeding children whose lives are being upended by the coronavirus pandemic is a top priority for federal officials.

"We continue to waive restrictions and expand flexibilities across our programs," Perdue said.

Following virus-related shutdowns, school districts in the Washington region and across the country have converted their empty campuses into meal distribution sites — a key resource for an ever-escalating number of parents as unemployment spikes nationwide. But for families with immunocompromised children — at higher risk of contracting the virus and of dying if infected — the policy of in-person pickups was forcing wrenching decisions, as The Post reported this week.

One mother in Prince William County, Virginia, whose 7-year-old daughter has a compromised immune system due to cancer treatments, said she woke each morning to an unbearable decision.

"Do I get the food and risk my child's life?" asked the single mother, who recently lost her job as a driver due to the virus-fueled halting of daily life in America. "Or do we go hungry, but stay safe?"

Following publication of the article, a group of legislators — including United States Sen. Mark R. Warner, D-Va., and Virginia lawmakers Del. Danica Roem (D), Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D) and Rep. Gerry Conolly (D) — urged the USDA to change its rule. Roem, among others, repeatedly phoned and emailed federal officials over the past few days to lament the policy's effects.

On Thursday, the lawmakers, along with Virginia school employees, lauded the new USDA guidance as a boon to parents and children nationwide. It is difficult to calculate how many families have children with compromised immune systems, but the number is certainly in the tens of thousands and likely higher.

"The recent waiver from USDA is an amazing victory for the community we serve and those who serve on the front line," said Adam Russo, director of Prince William County Public Schools office of school food and nutrition services.

Roem, who represents Prince William County and Manassas Park, said the updated rule means American children throughout the country will be able to eat without endangering their health.

"We took on the federal government, and we won a victory for kids like my 7-year-old constituent with cancer," Roem said. "She's worth it. Go eat, everyone."

On Thursday morning, the mother of the 7-year-old drove to pick up food from a nearby school campus. She left her daughter at home.

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