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(WHNT/WGN) – Schools and daycare facilities can now offer free meals to children through June 2022, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The extended Child Nutrition Program waivers allow providers needed flexibilities to ensure children have continued access to free meals at school through June 30, 2022, regardless of their ability to pay.

The extension, announced Tuesday, is part of the Biden-Harris Administration’s plan to reopen schools safely.

The Summer Food Service Program and other child nutrition programs help fill the meal gaps left by school closures.

“Students’ success in the classroom goes hand in hand with their ability to access basic needs like healthy and nutritious meals,” Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a statement on the USDA’s website. “It’s critical that our efforts to reopen schools quickly and safely include programs that provide access to free, healthy meals for our most vulnerable students, particularly those whose communities have been hardest hit by the pandemic.”

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement that states and districts had called for the extension to help them plan for a safe reopening in the fall.

“USDA will remain relentless in ensuring our nation’s children get the critical nutrition they need,” Vilsack said. “USDA answered the call to help America’s schools and childcare institutions serve high-quality meals while being responsive to their local needs as children safely return to their regular routines.”

The schools that participate will also receive higher-than-normal meal reimbursements, which the USDA says will help them serve children the most nutritious meals possible while managing the increased costs associated with pandemic-related challenges.

“It’s a win-win for kids, parents and schools,” Vilsack said.

This plan also allows for flexible meal times and for parents or guardians to pick up meals for their children when school programs weren’t operating normally.

The extended waivers include

  • The Seamless Summer Option allows schools to serve free meals to all children, regardless of location, in a streamlined way between the regular school year and out-of-school times;
  • The Area Eligibility waiver allows sites in areas that would not normally meet the eligibility threshold to provide meals and waives area eligibility for family child care homes;  
  • Meal Pattern Flexibility allows for flexibility in meeting the meal pattern requirements in specific situations; 
  • The Non-Congregate waiver allows grab-and-go meals, which are not usually permitted under the Summer Food Service Program
  • The Meal Service Times waiver allows for multiple meals to be served at once and for meals to be served outside of standard meal times;
  • The Parent/Guardian Pick Up waiver allows a parent or guardian to pick up meals to take home to children. 

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