The Agriculture Department (USDA) has already granted waivers allowing all 50 states, Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico to more easily serve meals to children. Augmenting that effort, the department announced Tuesday a feeding program partnership with PepsiCo and other organizations to provide at least 1 million meals per week to children who don't have access to current meal provisions.
USDA's initiative came as schools across the nation closed and Democrats called on Republicans to provide some kind of relief for low-income families, particularly for children who rely on free meals during school hours.
Current law allows schools to leverage a federal summer meals program in order to provide for students during unexpected closures, but requires meals be distributed in a group setting. The USDA's waivers allow students to avoid that requirement in order to maintain social distancing during the pandemic.
“Right now, USDA and local providers are utilizing a range of innovative feeding programs to ensure children are practicing social distancing but are still receiving healthy and nutritious food. This whole of America approach to tackling the coronavirus leverages private sector ingenuity with the exact same federal financing as the Summer Food Service Program," Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a press release.
"USDA has already taken swift action to ensure children are fed in the event of school closures, and we continue to waive restrictions and expand flexibilities across our programs," he said.
The feeding program partnership applies to a limited number of rural schools and includes five days worth of individually packaged food. "The use of this innovative delivery system will ensure rural children receive nutritious food while limiting exposure to COVID-19," the department said.
PepsiCo has dedicated $1 million to provide meals in collaboration with McLane Global, a supply chain and logistics company, and the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty.
On Saturday, the president urged both parties to get behind legislation that would provide school lunch assistance and other forms of relief. It currently awaits passage in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Trump also advanced an $850 billion stimulus package that provides economic aid. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin was pitching the roughly $850 billion package to Senate Republicans at a private lunch, with officials aiming to have Congress approve it this week. Some lawmakers were skeptical. “I’m going to be very leery of doing something like in 2008,” said Indiana Republican Sen. Mike Braun.
But the other senator from Indiana, Todd Young, chairman of the Republican Senate campaign committee, said he was open to approving $1,000 checks and wants aid out the door as as soon as possible. He said he was the only passenger on his flight back to Washington.
The administration faced scrutiny earlier this year after it proposed giving states more flexibility in fruit and vegetable standards set as part efforts undertaken by former first lady Michelle Obama. In 2018, the USDA finalized a rule similarly diluted standards surrounding milk flavors and whole grain-rich food.
"Egregious," Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., tweeted in January. "The Occupant is trying to play petty with the food our babies eat. Add it to the list affirming that the cruelty is the point with this White House."
During Tuesday's episode of "The View," Ohio Governor Mike Dewine defended the way the administration handled the coronavirus response.
"We've asked the Trump administration, for example, to give us a waiver ... And within 24 hours, the Trump administration gave us the waivers we need so that we could take this food out into the community. And what we have done is say anybody 18 years of age or under is welcome to come and get this food. In some cases, school districts are delivering it."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.