With the loss of universal free school meals offered during the COVID-19 pandemic, the nation's top ag official wants to make sure parents know they may have to take additional steps to qualify for school food assistance.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack highlighted the importance of getting schoolchildren enough good food and nutrition to fuel their learning and previewed the upcoming White House hunger conference at a Washington, D.C., elementary school Friday. 

In particular, Vilsack warned parents that in order for their children to receive free or reduced-price school meals in the current school year, they may have to fill out paperwork that has not been required since early 2020, when USDA authorized schools to offer free meals to all students, regardless of income.

Congress did not extend regulatory waivers allowing the free meals for the 2022-23 school year, however, leaving schools that do not qualify under the Community Eligibility Provision for full or partial federal support facing higher costs, and contributing to calls for universally free school meals.

“During the course of the last couple of years, school districts didn't have to worry about paperwork, they didn’t have to worry about applications, they were able to simply do what they do best, which is to feed people, and feed them well,” Vilsack said at John Burroughs Elementary School in Northeast D.C.

“For some students and for some parents, this transition is brand-new,” Vilsack said. “If you had a youngster who started school or would have started school … a year or so ago, you don't know about the fact that you may have to fill out an application for your youngster to be able to access free or reduced lunch.”

Vilsack urged school districts to work with USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service to see whether they qualify for free or reduced meals under the Community Eligibility Provision. 

“My feeling is we should make it as easy as possible for parents,” he said. “We should make it as easy as possible for schools to continue to do what they want to do, which is feed kids well.”

Asked whether free school meals for all might be part of the strategy unveiled at the Sept. 28 White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health, Vilsack demurred.

“I don't want to prejudge the outcome of the conference,” he said, but added, “I think you're going to see a plan that lifts up the importance of nutrition, that understands it's not just about feeding people well and that we still have work to do, and that we in this administration are very committed to continuing that.”

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Asked about the role of agriculture in the conference – highlighted in a letter Thursday from farm groups seeking a “seat at the table” for the event – Vilsack said, “I think it's fair to say that ag is going to be well represented. … I mean, I am an integral part of this and I have a responsibility to speak on behalf of agriculture.”

He added he did not know who has been personally invited, “but the reality is everyone's going to have access” via the internet. “So in that sense, they'll be able to participate. And the fact is, this is one day, but it's the beginning of a process and the beginning of a conversation. And clearly, ag is going to be involved.”

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