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VIDEO: Pingree Questions USDA Secretary about School Meals Program Access Amid Coronavirus Outbreak

Today, during a House Appropriations Committee hearing, Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) questioned US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Sonny Perdue about how the nation’s school meals program would be impacted by the outbreak of COVID-19. Across the nation, schools are taking proactive steps to prevent spread of the coronavirus by temporarily closing their doors. Multiple states, including Maine, have asked the USDA for a waiver so that they have more flexibility in serving school meals, including offering school meals off-site. Around 22 million students receive free or reduced lunch during the school year; one in five Maine children is food insecure.

Secretary Perdue told Congresswoman Pingree definitively that the “answer is yes” if states have filed waivers they will be approved. Pingree followed up to ask if waivers would potentially be unnecessary if a Presidential Emergency Declaration was made, to which Perdue said state waivers would still be necessary.

Watch their full exchange here

Transcript of their exchange is as follows:

REP PINGREE: So, just a little bit more – You’ve given us a lot of background on the coronavirus and school meals, and obviously you’re hearing a lot about that because it’s a big area of concern. And I can tell that the Department’s been thinking that through, so I just want to follow up on a couple of questions. I guess what you were saying earlier was, on the waiver, you can’t – you can’t sort of pre-agree to take in all the waivers. You just said to people generally we’re likely to approve it, submit your request for us.

SEC PERDUE: That’s the way we understand the statute. We have to be asked – What we are saying there is, if you ask, we’re going to say yes on the waiver to congregate feeding. That’s the opportunity there. We are essentially saying, we just have to fulfill the statute by being asked, but the answer is yes.

PINGREE: And how many requests – I know you said there were three that you’ve granted, which is great, thank you for working on those. But how many requests do you have in right now?

PERDUE: I think we have some from Utah. They are kind of coming in as they go. And this, again, is a waiver for when schools are closed over the – The waiver is actually for a requirement when typically you have to have congregate feeding, it defeats the purpose of social distancing in the coronavirus. That’s what we’re actually waiving, so it’s – We’ve done California, Washington, Alaska, and I think we have some requests in from Utah. It may be more this morning, I haven’t checked.

PINGREE: I think Maine has either requested or is requesting, though we’ve been fortunate, we haven’t had as much of a challenge yet. One question I had was, if there’s a presidential declaration of an emergency, do you still have to go through the waiver request?


PINGREE: You do. And I guess another concern that you addressed briefly was, on the districts that don’t qualify 50% of free and reduced lunch. So you may have a district that overall is, you know, not meeting the target, but has pockets of schools. Do you -- Do you need some authority from us? What were you saying on that?

PERDUE: Well, it would be helpful to have blanket authority. But what we’re doing, like the summer feeding program, there’s an open and low-income area – There’s an open [area] where everybody can come, and there are also closed systems where the groups know that students who are eligible to do that, and they come. Take, for instance, in a non-low-income [area], you’ve got some low-income students there. So they’re eligible, they just have to come and identify themselves, and they will be fed as well. In a low-income area, in an open congregate area, an area where they come and pick up food, anyone can come in that area and do that. So we’ll all provide for the low-income and others, but that’s the way the statute does it. You know, if we had more flexibility, we could be more open than the others.

Pingree is a member of the House Agriculture Committee as well as the House Appropriations’ Committee Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies. She is a recognized leader on food and agriculture issues and is a member of the House Hunger Caucus. 


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