The United States Department of Agriculture extended key waivers on Tuesday that make it easier for children to access free meals in their communities through the summer.
The waivers, which were extended until September 30, give all students regardless of income access to free meals provided by summer meal programs. They also allow parents or guardians to pick up meals for their children in bulk and allow meals to be served outside of the usual group settings and timing requirements.
Before, only students from low-income families would have access to free meals, and there would be limitations on how much food could be distributed at once and where food could be picked up.
The USDA extended the waivers multiple times throughout the pandemic, but the department's announcement Tuesday guarantees that all those who have been eligible for these programs will continue to qualify even though schools are not in session. The waivers were previously set to expire on June 30.
"We will do everything we can to make sure children get access to healthy, nutritious meals regardless of their families' financial circumstances," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said, according to a statement released by the department. "USDA is committed to providing local operators with the flexibilities and resources they need to continue offering the best meal service possible to their children, given their day-to-day realities."
Summer meal programs are often used when school is off during the academic school year to provide meals for children who otherwise would be fed in school. But the expansion of who is eligible for these programs has helped feed many Americans during the pandemic, as food insecurity has dramatically spiked.
The department estimates that more than 12 million children and 30 million adults in the United States do not always have enough food to eat, attributed in large part to the public health and economic crises caused by the pandemic.
On March 11, President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan into law, which also provides relief funding that aims to address growing hunger in the United States.