Federal waivers that sharply increased the number of meals public schools provided to Maine children – more than 12 million since the pandemic forced schools to close – will end Monday.

Advocates for ending childhood hunger in Maine say that will create new obstacles to getting hungry kids fed.

“There is a huge need and it continues to grow,” said Anna Korsen, director of advocacy and partnerships for Full Plates Potential, a nonprofit coalition that works on childhood hunger issues in Maine. “These waivers going away is going to be devastating to these kids and devastating to these families.”

The waivers, issued by the U.S. Department of Agricultural near the onset of the pandemic, allowed school departments to provide breakfast and lunch to anyone under 18 asking for a meal. The waivers expire Monday despite repeated requests that USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue extend them.

While basic free and reduced-meal programs are not going away, the waivers eliminated many eligibility requirements and rules, including those that set certain enrollment requirements and prohibit free meals from going to charter or private school students.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, is among a bipartisan group of 120 members of Congress urging Perdue to keep the waivers in place.

Many Maine school districts, including Portland and others with large populations of low-income students, provided curbside pickup programs or school bus delivery of meals to students as they participated in remote learning last spring. The waivers also allowed summer food programs greater flexibility, and those too sharply increased the number of meals provided to Maine children, according to Korsen.

In July 2019, the programs provided 494,430 meals. And while final numbers are not in from all programs that served meals this July, the tally is already over 600,000, she said.

Kelli Deveaux, communications director for the Maine Department of Education, said the department is working with school district food directors around Maine to help them access USDA waivers that are still in place.

Deveaux said that in May alone, waivers to the Summer Food Service Program allowed Maine schools to provide 2.76 million meals to students learning from home.

“We welcome these flexibilities in order to assist (schools) and to ensure Maine students have access to nutritious meals,” Deveaux wrote in an email message. “We recognize the complications involved with meal provision during this unprecedented time.”

Perdue has declined congressional requests to extend the waiver, saying he isn’t authorized to create a universal food program for public schools.

“While we want to provide as much flexibility as local school districts need during this pandemic, the scope of this request is beyond what USDA currently has the authority to implement and would be closer to a universal school meals program which Congress has not authorized or funded,” Perdue wrote in a letter responding to the request. “Should Congress choose to go in this direction, USDA stands ready to provide technical assistance.”

But Pingree and her colleagues believe Perdue does have the authority to extend the waivers for the coming school year. They say Congress has already made money available for the extension.

In a new joint letter to Perdue, signed by Pingree and her colleagues and issued Friday, the lawmakers contest his decision to end the waivers.

“We urge you to immediately reverse your decision and extend all of the waivers using your authority under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA),” the lawmakers wrote. “At a moment when as many as 17 million children did not get enough to eat this summer, this decision is not only based in an incorrect understanding of the law, but it is also irresponsible and cruel.”

Many Maine students will soon return to school, but not full-time. Most school districts have adopted two-day, hybrid remote learning options that will have students in school only two days a week. That means the parents of students eligible for free or reduced-price meals at school will need to find a way to pick up meals from the schools on days their students are home. It also means they will have to reapply for eligibility for each student. If they have students in different schools, they might have to retrieve meals from different locations.

The programs allow students to take a meal home for the next day if they are not going to be in school, but they don’t address how meals will be distributed in any of the hybrid or remote learning options that will be in place next month.

About 43 percent of the roughly 180,000 public school students in Maine depend on school meals, according to research by Full Plates Potential.

Korsen, at Full Plates, said food insecurity and hunger is projected to increase by 40 percent for kids in Maine over the next year and by as much as 60 percent in some of the more densely populated parts of southern Maine.

She said state legislative leaders are also urging Perdue to change course on the waivers.

“This is going to be a really challenging school year in many ways and in these times of great uncertainty Secretary Perdue has the ability to help children get access to these school meals and he needs to do that,” Korsen said.


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