We are all being impacted by the coronavirus pandemic and are waiting for positive news about when we can all return to normal – whatever the new “normal” might be. Perhaps those who are most significantly impacted, however, are our children and grandchildren. Many schools are closing for a few weeks to the full balance of the school year, providing remote education as best as is possible. 

Kansas Governor Laura Kelly announced all K-12 schools will be closed for the remainder of the school year due to the coronavirus. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced he will close schools in the state for the rest of the academic year.

The children impacted are losing access to education, activities, their friends and school meals…. lunch, breakfast and after school snacks. For many of the children school lunch and breakfast is most of their calories each day 

School meal professionals are doing all that they can to be creative in how to get replacement meals to children. There are many instances in which meal distribution sites have been set up. Others are delivering meals via school bus to the traditional school bus pickup spots so children can have these meals delivered to them.  

We commend USDA and the Food and Nutrition Service, in particular, for working hard to be flexible. Congress recently enacted the Families First Coronavirus Response Act to make waivers of many existing rules more automatic. This flexibility should be used to the maximum extent possible. 

We are all adjusting to a situation that is changing rapidly. The virus is spreading, and we are told by the doctors that it may get worse before it gets better. The economic impact is hitting millions of families, whose income is dropping precipitously. Many who did not qualify for free or reduced-price meals in September, at the beginning of the school year, now qualify but with schools closing it is impossible to apply. When schools close there is no one to take or process the application.  

In an emergency of this unique magnitude, meals should be provided free, without charge to all students for the rest of this school year and during the summer. If schools are open for the next school year, and we sure hope they are, parents can go back to applying for free and reduced-price meals, and schools can go back to the normal verification process. 

(It has never made sense to me that 100,000 schools in the country must verify income when the federal and state governments already have the income information. There must be a better system. School meal professionals tend to be nutritionists, not accountants.)

The Urban School Food Alliance, which includes some of the largest school districts in the country, along with other organizations and school food authorities are looking to USDA and Congress for the authority to feed everyone. The Congress is passing a series of emergency bills to help various sectors of the economy. Let’s not forget the kids. If USDA needs addition authority, and they are examining the new Families First legislation, the Congress should take note. Time is of the essence. 

The National School Lunch Act of 1946 says “It is hereby declared to be the policy of Congress, as a measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s children….” It was President Nixon at the White House Conference on Nutrition in 1969 who said the nutritional health of our children was a national concern.  He pointed out that beyond the moral imperative there were practical reasons to make sure our children are fed. Let’s keep faith with these goals and respond to the emergency by making sure that children are fed immediately and through the summer.  

The Congress can then examine if permanent improvements can be made in the program when they take up child nutrition authorization incorporating meals into the school day with a different financial support system than what is used today.

Marshall Matz specializes in food and nutrition at OFW Law. Zach Gihorski is a third year law student at Penn State Dickinson Law, working at OFW this semester.