COVID-19 Update 3/16: California Implements Nutrition Program Flexibilities


Community partners across the state are working around the clock to make sure vulnerable Californians are getting the food they need as schools, senior centers, and businesses take necessary precautions to limit the spread of coronavirus. Our federal nutrition programs have contingencies built into them to support their response and recovery efforts, but despite these flexibilities, community partners are finding it challenging to meet the needs of their communities. Below is the latest information we have on the flexibilities that are currently available and where they are falling short. Additional federal action is needed to ensure no Californian goes hungry as a result of the pandemic; we urge our senators to pass H.R. 6201 - The Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

School Meals

Over 80% of California’s K-12 students are impacted by school closures. As they shut down their doors many of their schools have no plans in place to make meals available to children who typically depend on free and reduced-price meals. On March 13th Governor Newsom issued an Executive Order ensuring California school districts retain state funding even in the event of physical closure due to coronavirus. In order to be eligible for the funding, school districts must make meals available to students in non-congregate settings. The California Department of Education (CDE) issued accompanying guidance on Tuesday, March 17th on how to make non-congregate meals available through California's recently approved waiver from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

On March 7th, USDA approved a waiver request from CDE to allow California’s School Food Authorities and community organizations enrolled in the Summer Food Service Program and Seamless Summer Option the opportunity to serve non-congregate meals during unanticipated school closures as a result of coronavirus. The waiver allows meals to be served at school and non-school sites, and enables meals to be taken away from the site and consumed elsewhere. Schools may make available up to two meals, one meal and one snack, or two snacks per day and multiple days worth of food can be issued at once for the number of days the school is closed. link Schools where at least 50% of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals may make meals available to all children under 18 years. All other schools must more directly target the households of children who are eligible for free or reduced price meals. On March 17th, USDA issued clarifying guidance that schools who have been approved for non-congregate feeding through SFSP or SSO can deliver meals directly to students’ homes with approval from their state agency and with parent consent for meal delivery. The guidance clarifies that children do not need to be present when meals are delivered. To take advantage of this flexibility, schools and eligible community organizations must submit a request to CDE by emailing the below information to

  • Name of school(s) covered by waiver request
  • At what point following school dismissal the meal service would start
  • What meal distribution method(s) the institution will use and how the waiver will target the children in the dismissed schools
  • How the meal distribution will target low-income children, if the school does not have 50 percent or more free and reduced-price children enrolled
  • Methods for communicating with families
  • How the program operator will ensure proper operation of the program including meal content, meal counts, food safety, and oversight.
  • Non-congregate meals, while better than nothing, will not meet the needs of California’s poorest children who have no parent at home and no way to travel safely to meal sites. Even in schools that are providing meals, not having transportation to the pick up site and limited hours of operation restrict access to meals. Pandemic EBT, as included in H.R. 6201, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, offers an effective solution that overcomes these barriers and allows all children who qualify for free or reduced-price meals to stay nourished even if they can’t make it to a school meal pick-up site.

    Child Care Meals

    USDA has only approved non-congregate meals for Summer Food Service Program and Seamless Summer Option sponsors that are operating under the SFSP/SSO COVID-19 waiver mentioned above. Under the waiver, if a child care center that participates in the Child and Adult Care Food Program is located in a dismissed school, children enrolled in that center are also eligible for meals provided to children attending the dismissed school. Unfortunately, the majority of child care centers and family child care homes in the state are not located within school districts.

    As a growing number of child care centers and family child care homes close due to coronavirus, over a hundred thousand children who typically have access to free or reduced-price meals in child care could go without. H.R. 6201, known as the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, was passed by the House last week, and would grant authority to USDA to allow non-congregate feeding in child care centers and family child care homes through the Child and Adult Care Food Program. A vote on the bill is expected in the Senate this week.


    WIC has flexibilities built into the program that can be used to support local WIC agencies in increasing access to WIC’s benefits during the Pandemic, for example: local WIC agencies may exempt certain individuals with an illness from the physical presence requirement; Nutrition education/counseling can in some cases be delivered via phone or secure interactive video conferencing; and in some cases agencies can issue benefits remotely. CDPH-WIC has shared these and other programmatic flexibilities with their WIC Directors and testing is being done to prepare for changes. The implementation of the flexibilities will likely be different depending on the agency and some agencies will be closed to the public.


    With many workers losing hours, or even jobs there may be an increase in the number of individuals and families seeking assistance through CalFresh. At the same time, some county offices may close down. Anticipating these and other concerns, the California Department of Social Services issued guidance on March 13th outlining flexibilities as well expectations for serving communities affected by coronavirus.

    Older Adult Nutrition

    The Older Americans Act has flexibilities built into the program that can be used to support local Areas on Aging in increasing access to senior nutrition programs during a Pandemic, including for example transitioning some funds from congregate meals to home-delivered meals. The Administration for Community Living has put together this helpful resource, including this great FAQ which details senior nutrition program flexibilities. Many older adults also attend adult day health centers and homes that participate in the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP). USDA has not yet approved non-congregate feeding for CACFP.

    Despite these flexibilities, additional action is needed to ensure no Californian goes hungry as a result of the Pandemic.

    We urge congress to support H.R. 6201 - The Families First Coronavirus Response Act. Call your Senators TODAY at (202) 224-3121 and urge them for quick passage of the bill which would:

  • Give USDA authority to approve state plans to provide Pandemic EBT, a well-tested solution that delivers nutrition assistance on an EBT card that can be used to purchase groceries for families with school children who qualify for free or reduced-price school meals when school is out of session due to a pandemic;
  • Give USDA authority to issue waivers to allow child care centers to operate as non-congregate sites.
  • Provide $500 million to provide access to WIC for low-income pregnant women and mothers with young children who lose their jobs or are laid off due to coronavirus;
  • Allow states to request waivers from USDA to provide temporary, emergency Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, also known as CalFresh in California) benefits and suspends time limits on SNAP eligibility for unemployed and underemployed individuals;
  • Give USDA authority to issue waivers to allow adult care centers to operate as non-congregate sites. Provides $250 million for increases in meals provided by senior nutrition programs housed in the Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Community Living.
  • Questions? Contact: Melissa Cannon at 209.200.8446 or visit or