MONTPELIER, Vt. Rule waivers granted to Vermont and other states in March that allow children to receive free breakfast and lunch through schools have been extended until the end of June.

“It’s a nationwide waiver. Right now any school in the country can choose to operate in this special way. This is really an extension of what has been happening since March, since the schools closed,” said Anore Horton, executive director of Hunger Free Vermont.

In March, the pandemic forced schools to close, but meal programs designed to take effect during a disaster were offered through the summer, and many of the normal rules surrounding them were waived by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Horton said a big change was making all meals free, so the schools wouldn’t have to spend time tracking which kids were eligible for them.

“There’s lots of other rules that also got waived,” said Horton. “For meals to be delivered to kids at home, that’s not allowed under the normal program, for parents to come and pick up multiple days worth of meals at a time, that’s not allowed under the normal program. These things are happening now because of the pandemic.”

Getting these waivers extended by the USDA took some convincing, she said, adding that Vermont’s congressional delegation took the lead on the issue and eventually the USDA made the waiver extension nationwide.

Hunger Free Vermont, and other hunger organizations, plan to talk the USDA into extending the waivers at least through summer 2021. She said people should seek to use the free meals program, as it helps the schools and the farmers producing food for the meals.

“We want to get the message out to all families with kids out there to say, use your school meal program,” she said. “It’s free for everyone right now, and the best way to support your schools is to use that program.”

Even children who aren’t in school can get food through a school program, said Rosie Krueger, state director of child nutrition programs at the Agency of Education.

“The big thing about the extension of the waiver is not just that it allows us to serve free meals for all school children, it actually allows us to serve free meals for all children 18 and under including younger siblings who aren’t yet school age,” she said. “That’s a big difference, even under universal meals.”

For kids not yet enrolled, they have to get meals from a school that’s designated an “open site,” she said. Not all schools have chosen to be open sites, but many have. Krueger said parents should first contact their school to see what’s available, and if they can’t get meals that way they should call 2-1-1 or visit the USDA’s meal finder site, fns.usda.gov/meals4kids

Some of the rules that the USDA has waived allow parents to pick up multiple days worth of meals, for meals to be delivered to homes, and for schools to have some flexibility on what they can serve, as there may be some foods hard to source given the pandemic. The latter issue, she said, hasn’t been a major issue in Vermont.

Jeanne Collins, superintendent of Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, said Monday the waivers have worked well for the district and it has helped many families. She said it’s good news that the waivers were extended and that the supervisory union was among those that voiced its support for them.

keith.whitcomb @rutlandherald.com

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