The U.S. Department of Agriculture allows summer meal operators to continue serving free meals to children throughout the school year. The decision ensures children have access to food as the country is dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a press release.

The exemptions allow two meal serving programs, Summer Food Service and Seamless Summer Option, to reach children regardless of who they are or where they live. The free program also allows parents and guardians to pick up meals for their children. And they can feed their children beyond the normal program times.

In the past six months, the USDA and its partners have opened nearly tens of thousands of locations nationwide that offer higher reimbursement rates than the traditional school year while using funds provided by Congress. By recalculating the remaining funds, the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Department decided it could continue the exemptions and provide food to children through the end of the 2021 school year because Congress did not approve enough funds.

The announcement was facilitated by members of the School Nutrition Association.

Chris Burkhardt of SNA, Executive Director of School Nutrition for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, Ohio, said, “With these exemptions, we can expedite the distribution of meals to keep staff and families safe and to ensure that no student is inaccessible is denied healthy meals. ”

Since the pandemic began, the Food and Nutrition Service has been working to ensure that children eat beyond the normal classroom. In addition to making 3,000 programs more flexible, the USDA has created public-private partnerships that have delivered nearly 40 million meals straight to the homes of low-income rural children. This is the second time since the start of this school year that these programs have expanded.

Agriculture Minister Sonny Purdue said: “We appreciate the incredible efforts of our school feeding professionals year after year, but this year we have an unprecedented situation.”

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