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Implementation of COVID-19 meal pattern waivers: Best practices and comparisons by state

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We compiled best practices and recommendations for partners working with schools, school districts, state agencies, and USDA. Based on the results of these findings, we recommend that USDA:

  • Provide more robust technical assistance dedicated to addressing the most common reasons for using the meal pattern waiver. According to our survey, the most common reasons cited were: meeting sodium, whole grains, and flavored milk; fruit and vegetable portions and variety; providing milk in bulk; and using a single meal pattern for different grade groups. We provide examples of technical assistance below.
  • Provide greater transparency by posting publicly the number and common reasons for meal pattern waivers by state, similar to how USDA collected information on the whole grain-rich waivers. Ensuring transparency will aid external stakeholders in working with schools on meal pattern waiver-specific issues.
  • Issue guidance or policy memo that school districts provide a reason (e.g., demonstrate hardship) for use of the meal pattern waiver. In an August 2020 memo, USDA removed that requirement as required by the FFCRA law. According to our survey, nearly all state agencies (94 percent) required schools demonstrate hardship, or provide a reason or justification, to waive all or most meal components. While this is welcome news, it is unclear if this trend will continue in the long term given our survey began only two months after USDA removed this requirement. Further, USDA is only able to provide technical assistance to schools if the reasons for the waivers are known.
  • Work with state agencies to continue requiring individual school districts apply for the waiver rather than issuing a statewide waiver (94 percent of state agencies currently implement this practice) and continue permitting the use of the waiver for specific meal components only (96 percent of state agencies currently do this).
  • Provide guidance on best practices for reducing the burden to schools on demonstrating hardship while ensuring sufficient documentation for technical assistance.
    • In terms of mechanism, the majority (75 percent) of state agencies set up the waiver request form online which may be the best model for schools (links provided in our fact sheet). 
    • In terms of documentation, CSPI identified some good models including:
      • Ohio’s waiver request form states that CACFP operators must, “maintain food shortage documentation in the form of distributor emails, dated photographs of store shelves, screen shots from the food ordering system, etc. Indicate the substitutions on the production records and/or menu.”
      • North Carolina, via email exchange with Director, School Nutrition and District Operations:
        • “If the waiver is granted, the [district] should continue to attempt to procure the item from alternative sources and notify NCDPI if the waiver is no longer needed. [Districts] must track the number of meals served that do not meet the meal pattern and will be required to document all meal component substitutions and any efforts to procure the missing component.”
      • Mississippi provided good and bad examples in its guidance:
        • “Bad example: My vendor is out of milk.
        • Good example: My vendor is out of milk. I also contacted two other vendors that service our area, and they cannot provide milk until May 1, 2020. All vendors’ responses are in writing.”
  • Provide guidance on best practices to state agencies for the meal pattern waiver. CSPI identified best practices from state agencies that included:
    • Direct engagement with schools:
      • Calling each school district weekly to provide one-on-one TA and updates, followed up with email containing resource links (LA)
      • Encouraging school district to connect with each other (DC, UT)
      • Creating open office hours for support (DC)
      • Holding town hall meetings and/or regular calls (AK, CA, CO, MI, MT, UT)
      • On calls in MT, schools shared their own best practices
      • Conducting trainings (AZ, TX, UT)
      • Holding webinars (CA, LA, MN, MT, VA, WA)
    • Providing procurement support by:
      • Determining if there are USDA commodity foods available to fill gaps (UT)
      • Working closely with community and state partners to assist Districts with food supply issues (WA)
    • Providing resources such as:
      • Newsletters (CO, MI, WA)
      • Toolkit (IN)
    • School districts also identified these best practices from their state agencies:
      • Contacting suppliers on behalf of the school/school district
      • Identifying shelf-stable options and/or alternate vendors when needed
      • Providing cold storage

Ensure robust communications to school districts on the meal pattern waiver. For instance, some respondents did not know whether their school was required to demonstrate hardship to receive the waiver.