Leander ISD child nutrition services employees carry out a table of lunches at Bagdad Elementary School in Leander on March 25. (Brian Perdue/Community Impact Newspaper)
The Texas Department of Agriculture, which administers the federally funded school meal programs, had already received a federal waiver allowing school districts to hand out curbside breakfasts and lunches to parents who show up. But until Wednesday night, the law required parents to bring their children with them to prove they qualify for school meals — which educators and lawmakers argue contradicts public health recommendations during the crisis.
State Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, who chairs the House Agriculture and Livestock Committee, co-signed a letter this week asking the TDA and U.S. Department of Agriculture to give school districts more flexibility on that requirement.
“That could spell trouble if a child is sick with COVID-19 and unable to show up,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter. “And in rural districts, some families rely on lengthy bus rides to get to the nearest school, which may also prove to be infeasible for working families when the school buses aren’t running anymore.”
The letter also asks officials to loosen nutrition guidelines as many school districts struggle to get shipments of food staples in bulk.
The TDA applied for and received federal waivers allowing school districts flexibility on both restrictions this week. Texas school districts will be reimbursed for free or reduced-price meals given to parents even if children are not present, as long as the TDA comes up with a plan to ensure the food is going to the right recipients.
“It’s legally complicated because you need to make sure that a child is actually receiving that meal. These are child nutrition programs and so we give them to children,” said Angela Olige, TDA’s assistant commissioner of food and nutrition.
In a recent letter to school superintendents, the TDA acknowledged the challenge districts face if they are unable to serve meals to parents without children in tow. “USDA is aware of this national issue and is exploring ways to provide additional meal delivery flexibilities,” the letter reads. “However, USDA has conveyed that meal service via a Grab-n-Go delivery methodology is very problematic when children are not present.”
Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, who oversees the TDA, said that under normal conditions, the rule would prevent people from “cheating the system” and taking food even if they don’t have children. But now, “you got a parent walking several blocks to the feeding center … taking four kids with them to get their breakfast and their lunch and then walking back. Well, this is a pandemic. We don’t need kids walking up the street.”