A meeting of the government’s dietary guidelines advisers has been moved online and schools are being offered flexibility in feeding low-income kids as the Agriculture Department tries to grapple with the coronavirus outbreak. 

The meeting of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, which was scheduled to be held at USDA's Washington headquarters on Thursday and Friday, is the last before the panel is supposed to submit its recommendations to USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services in May. 

The decision to do a virtual rather than face-to-face meeting was made “out of an abundance of caution, in response to travel restrictions imposed by some of the [committee] members' employers,” USDA said.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue is cautioning against overreacting to the outbreak. “Let’s not mistake preparedness for panic. … Let’s pray for the best and prepare for the worst without frightening and scaring people,” he said, speaking Monday to the School Nutrition Association’s annual legislative policy conference in Washington.

He said the department had denied a request from employees to telework because the office was located 50 miles “from any kind of outbreak. We said to carry on the way you are carrying on.” He didn't say where the request originated. 

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Perdue said USDA was acting to make it easier for schools to provide food to low-income children when schools closed. Schools that are automatically eligible for summer feeding programs because at least half the students can get free or reduced-priced meals can get waivers from a requirement during natural disasters that the children be fed on site. All of the kids in the schools could instead pick up bagged meals and take the food home. "It doesn't make sense to close schools and then require" children to gather at the schools and eat on-site, he said. 

Perdue appeared to suggest USDA would provide similar flexibility to other schools to provide food to individual students who are low income. However, an SNA spokeswoman said the organization checked with USDA and the special authority for feeding kids during outbreak-related closures would be limited to schools where a majority of the kids are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. 

Asked for a clarification of the policy, USDA issued a one-sentence statement to Agri-Pulse: "As states request waivers of other requirements, USDA is available around the clock to work with schools to ensure low-income children have the food they need, no matter the circumstance."

Perdue promised that the department would act quickly on waiver requests, noting that one received last Saturday was granted before the end of the day. 

Perdue told reporters that USDA had not considered asking Congress for authority to increase Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, something that was done during the recession in 2009. He didn’t rule out such a proposal if the outbreak worsens. "You will more than likely see suggestions about that," he said of a SNAP benefit increase. 

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