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Stabenow: USDA is taking away meals from students

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow said Tuesday she is calling on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide healthy meals to students for the duration of the school year after officials there said they were not extending some food-program practices.

Stabenow, D-Lansing, joined Michigan superintendent of instruction Michael Rice and other officials in a Zoom call to discuss a recent decision by the USDA not to extend waivers for key food programs that keep children fed across the nation while schools are closed.

Once the waivers expire at the end of the month, Rice said Michigan families would not be able to get meals on weekends, as they have since March, and parents would have to travel to each child's school to pick up meals instead of going to one designated site, which is current practice.

"This is going to have a very harmful effect on families already suffering," Rice said. "This is an outrage."

The state of Michigan has served 80 million meals to children since the pandemic shuttered school buildings in March.

Stabenow said Congress, in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, gave the USDA the flexibility to provide seven days of meals to families outside school at one site and did not take it away. She said she could not explain the department's decision to reduce meals offered.

"We gave them the authority. We didn’t take it away. I wonder what the agenda is and what is going on here? It is not about helping kids," Stabenow said. "We have the money."

Stabenow along with other members of Congress sent the USDA a letter, urging it to use its full authority to provide healthy meals to students.

“As families grapple with economic hardship as a result of COVID-19, school meals are a lifeline for students,” the lawmakers said in the letter. “Waivers have enabled schools to provide meal delivery, permitted families to take home multiple meals at once, and allowed for parent pick-up, among other innovative approaches to feeding children."

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue called Stabenow’s statements “disingenuous and either unintentionally or maliciously false.”

“We have been and are continually calculating remaining appropriated funds to determine how far we may be able to provide waivers into the future,” Perdue said in a statement late Tuesday. “It is hypocritical for a sitting U.S. Senator to launch these fear-mongering accusations when she herself knows or should have known Congress did not authorize enough funding for the entire 2020-2021 school year.

“USDA is in constant communication with both majority and minority staff informing them of our fiscal balances. Since our school systems usually have 60 days of lag time in reporting usage, this calculation assumes some degree of projection. However, as an administrative agency, and not an appropriator, we are obligated to not spend more than is appropriated under penalty of law.”

In an Aug. 20 letter from Perdue to Stabenow, Perdue said his department wants to provide as much flexibility as local school districts need during this pandemic but "the scope of this request is beyond what USDA currently has the authority to implement and would be closer to a universal school meals program which Congress has not authorized or funded.

"Should Congress choose to go in this direction, USDA stands ready to provide technical assistance. Americans are a generous people, and there are already opportunities for breakfast, lunch, and snacks, and weekend meals for children in need," Perdue wrote.

Nutrition is key to student success, said Marcus Davenport, superintendent of Beecher Community Schools in Genesee County.

"It is extremely difficult for a hungry student to focus and learn," he said. "We need meals to reach students each day in their neighborhood and extra meals on holidays and weekends."

jchambers@detroitnews.com