Phoenixville Leader To USDA: Extend Food Program Flexibility

PHOENIXVILLE, PA — A community leader and state agriculture and education officials have the same goal this week: extend the pandemic-related food program waivers for schools, so that meal distribution isn’t disrupted for hungry kids.

Phoenixville Area School District President Blake Emmanuel has asked the USDA to extend food program waivers that made it easier to distribute meals when the pandemic began. Two Wolf administration officials today petitioned the head of USDA to keep the present program waivers in place, as the pandemic drags on.

The temporary waivers expire Aug. 31 or the day schools reopen. They have allowed schools to move food programs off-site from schools, and to distribute to anyone who showed up, without requiring the PIN that students have who are approved for free or reduced-price lunches.

Phoenixville Area School District resumes classes on Aug. 24, so the waiver will expire on that date in PASD. The district’s school board president, acting as a concerned citizen and not in her school board role, is hoping to continue food distribution under the waiver at the five distribution points that were established after schools closed last March.

According to Emmanuel, about 1 in 4 children in the district of 4,200 students is eligible for meal programs. The district is serving around 400 students a day.

“We have not missed a day; volunteers have been working, distributing breakfast and lunch,” she said this week. The program has been distributing meals for two days on Mondays, for two days on Wednesday, and for three days on Fridays.

Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding and Education Secretary Pedro Rivera on Aug. 19 called on U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to extend several national waivers that provide schools with meal distribution flexibility.

In a letter, they asked Perdue to allow programs to feed children when they are not physically in school, to allow feeding sites to give meals to people who may not meet the income threshold required for free school meals, and to continue to waive the requirement that a third meal only be allowed during school activities.

These actions, they said, will “ensure all Pennsylvania children under the age of 18 have consistent access to breakfast and lunch as schools approach the 2020-21 school year using a variety of instructional models.”

“Pennsylvania’s children have faced enough inconsistency and unknowns in 2020. These waivers are critical to ensuring school-aged kids don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from,” said Redding. “We’ve got to provide them the necessary fuel to succeed. You can’t feed a hungry mind on an empty stomach.”

PASD put to use the flexibility that the waivers allowed. When schools closed, the district had to rethink its distribution of meals because the north side of Phoenixville doesn’t have an elementary school location. “We set up a site there. There a lots of walkers in that neighborhood. Not everyone has access to transportation,” Emmanuel said.

“Hungry kids don’t learn,” Emmanuel said. She said that while Chester County overall is not a poor area, among the county’s 12 school districts Phoenixville is third from the bottom, in terms of family incomes.

State officials, in their petition to the USDA, cited statistics that show food insecurity has risen. Food insecurity means a person’s regular meals are not always available because of a lack of money to buy food.

“In 2020 as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a series of data analysis reports by Feeding America, the percentage of Pennsylvania children facing food insecurity will rise to 23.8 percent—up from 15.1 percent in 2018—an increase of 57.6 percent. Many of these children facing food insecurity rely on the national school breakfast and lunch programs,” the letter to Perdue said.

“However, like so many other school systems across the country, schools across the commonwealth are moving forward with a variety of instructional models that include blended (hybrid) or fully virtual learning. These deviations from normal operations present challenges for providing consistent access to food for an increasing number of children living in low-income households,” the administration said.

There are 1,200 students in the Phoenixville Area School District who qualify for meal programs, and when schools are open, they have a PIN to use. Since March, the requirement for the PIN to receive meals has been waived, related to the circumstances that arose around the pandemic. The waiver also allowed school districts nationwide to distribute meals off-site and on weekends.

Emmanuel said many of the students coming are the same ones who used a PIN at school for free or reduce price lunches at school. “We know these families,” she said. She added that while the PIN is not required under the waiver, “No one is showing up who isn’t in need.” Numbers show many more children are actually qualified than have PINs and receive meals when school is open.

Waiver expiration also means distribution will return to weekdays only, at school.

“We will have starving children. I cannot emphasize this enough,” Emmanuel said. “Dr. Fegley has been working on in-house solutions and I am prepared to do fundraising and volunteer coordination,” Emmanuel told legislators her letter on Tuesday.

“Tell me who needs to hear about the 8-year-old getting food for themselves and their three siblings because mom and dad are desperately trying to find work or the mother who was just laid off and came to distribution for the first time two weeks ago with tears and guilt in her eyes because she no longer could feed her family. I have so many more stories,” Emmanuel write to legislators.

Phoenixville Mayor Peter Urscheler has worked with the school district to keep the food program operative over the summer, as has Karin Williams, Director of the Phoenixville Office of Emergency Management. Their help has been crucial in supporting the school’s programs, Emmanuel said.

Emmanuel said that she intends next to urge all U.S. states to join in petitioning the USDA to extend these waivers immediately, as schools are beginning to open, and to urge their representatives to do the same. The borough’s website includes a page to help citizens connect with their representatives.

“There is a lot about the 2020-21 school year that will look different for our students,” said Education Secretary Rivera. “What shouldn’t look different is our commitment to ensuring they are provided nutritious meals to help them grow, learn and thrive. Pennsylvania’s education communities need these federal waivers to continue the important work of providing meals to our students.”

The letter to USDA’s Perdue asks for the immediate extension of the several national waivers that will expire on Aug. 31, 2020. Their concerns centered on maintaining flexibility in requirements to allow for the unique needs of this pandemic time.

Information about Pennsylvania’s food programs can be found here.

This article originally appeared on the Phoenixville Patch

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