USDA extends free meal program for children through end of the year

Deputies with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department stand in formation during protests following a police shooting on Aug. 31, 2020 By Devan Cole, CNN

(CNN) -- The Department of Agriculture announced Monday that it is extending and expanding a critical food assistance program that has been providing free meals to millions of children during the coronavirus pandemic.

The program typically provides free meals to children during the summer months, but the department started it early when schools began closing due to the pandemic, according to The Washington Post, which said officials had been planning to let some key parts of the program expire in August and September.

But the department announced in a statement on Monday that in addition to extending the assistance through December 31, it's also expanding access to it.

The changes include allowing meals to be served at any time throughout the day and allowing officials to distribute them "in all areas and at no cost." Parents or guardians will also be able to pick up food for their children, which can be beneficial for families with children who are at a higher risk for contracting the virus.

USDA said that in the last six months, "partners across the country have stood up nearly 80,000 sites" for meal distribution. The department typically distributes meals to just under 30 million students each day.

USDA said the changes come in response to "the needs of its stakeholders, who have shared concerns about continuing to reach those in need."

"This unprecedented move will help ensure -- no matter what the situation is on-the-ground -- children have access to nutritious food as the country recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic," it said, adding: "Collectively, these flexibilities ensure meal options for children continue to be available so children can access meals under all circumstances."

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said the program was especially important during the "unprecedented situation" the pandemic has caused.

"This extension of summer program authority will employ summer program sponsors to ensure meals are reaching all children -- whether they are learning in the classroom or virtually -- so they are fed and ready to learn, even in new and ever-changing learning environments," Perdue said in the release.

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