By Daniel Pessar* (Guest Blogger)
This is the second in a series of occasional posts by Daniel Pessar on regulatory flexibility in the context of food law and the pandemic.
School administrators across the country have their work cut out for them. The shift to remote instruction has improved compliance with social distancing mandates but has also created challenges for families and invited questions about the quality of online education. Modern schools, however, are more than just places of instruction—they are also hubs of support service activity for students. From providing guidance counselors and speech therapists to nurses and probation officers, schools are equipped to do much more than just teach. And many of the services offered by schools are less easily transferable to the web than classroom learning.
Food provision programs are one such example. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) administers federal programs including the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), the School Breakfast Program (SBP), and the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) which exist to bring nutritious food to school-age children. The Child Nutrition Programs, including the ones listed above, cost the United State over $20 billion each year—translating to well over 7 billion meals and snacks—and are administered with the help of a long list of laws and regulations.
But like many other school services, food programs are designed to provide meals on site and not remotely. For example, program sponsors (e.g., schools, camps, or governments) must agree, in writing, to numerous rules including to, “Maintain children on site while meals are consumed.” 7 CFR § 225.6(e)(15)
To allow the food programs to continue despite the virus-related upheaval, the USDA has relaxed several rules, including the requirement to have students eat on site. Although some rule waivers are being issued on a state-by-state or case-by-case basis, the USDA issued an all-states waiver in this case:
[The law and regulations require that] child nutrition program meals must be served in a congregate setting and must be consumed by participants on site. However, FNS [USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service] recognizes that in this public health emergency, waiving the congregate meal requirements is vital to ensure appropriate safety measures for the purpose of providing meals and meal supplements.
COVID–19: Child Nutrition Response #2 (March 20, 2020), Food and Nutrition Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture
Another important rule waiver deals with the requirement that students be present for food pickup. Given the concerns about students having to leave home in the current environment of recommended isolation—especially those students who may not feel well—the USDA granted another all-state rule waiver:
[The law and regulations] envision Program operators providing meals directly to children, not to parents and guardians picking up meals at non-congregate meal sites on behalf of their children. However, FNS recognizes that in this public health emergency, continuing to require children to come to the meal site to pick up meals may not be practical and in keeping with the goal of providing meals while also taking appropriate safety measures.
COVID–19: Child Nutrition Response #5 (March 25, 2020), Food and Nutrition Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture
Questions remain: Will these meals—designed to be healthy and produced with children in mind—actually get into the hands of the intended recipients? Even if they do, will students eat the food if they have unhealthy alternatives available? These and many other questions face school administrators and policymakers trying to navigate the new environment.
But at least food provisions can be handed to parents and guardians and sent home to students. The same cannot be said for counseling and therapy services, health services, and many other offerings. Without new avenues for connecting with students and distributing all resources, the pandemic disruption will continue to result in a dramatic decrease in support services to the students who need them most.
*Daniel Pessar is a third-year student at Harvard Law School. Before law school, he worked in the real estate investment industry for six years. He is the author of three books and numerous articles. He can be contacted at email@example.com
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