Interim Final Rule: SFSP Rural Non-Congregate Option
January 16, 2023
In December 2022, Congress took action to address the summer nutrition gap by providing new tools to serve low-income children during the summer months. On December 29, 2022, President Biden signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2023, which allowed children in rural areas to take their meals off-site beginning in 2023.
SFSP and SSO meal sites have provided nutritious summer meals, as well as recreational, educational, and other enrichment opportunities to generations of children. However, in rural areas, where there may be a lack of transportation, sites, funds, and staff to support traditional congregate meal service, non-congregate meal service can be used to help provide children in these areas with equitable access to nutritious food. Significantly, this rulemaking also allows for program operators to use the non-congregate option to complement congregate meals at the times when congregate meal service is not offered.
Why It Matters
Summer is frequently the most challenging time of the year for children at risk of food insecurity when they no longer have access to daily school meals. The Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) has been the primary source of nutritional support for vulnerable children during the summer since 1975. The purpose of the SFSP is to provide nutritious meals to children in low-income areas when schools are not in session during the summer months, as well as during long school breaks in communities with year-round school calendars.
Although the summer meal programs are an important source of nutrition for many children, program access remains inconsistent or out of reach for some communities and families that cannot reliably access summer meals. Children who may have difficulty accessing summer meals include those:
- living in rural areas who would have to travel long distances to receive a meal,
- living in communities without summer meal sites,
- living in areas with limited safe and reliable transportation options, and in families whose schedules do not allow them to travel to a site daily.
Only 1 in 6 children who eat free or reduced-price school meals participate in the summer meal programs in a typical year, leaving a large gap between children in need of summer meals and those who receive them. This ongoing summer nutrition gap indicates that the nutritional needs of children throughout the U.S. during the summer months cannot be met with a one-size-fits-all approach.
USDA's goal across all summer nutrition programs is simple: to connect children with nutritious food during the summer months. While traditional congregate summer meal service remains a vital tool for providing low-income children with nutritious meals at no cost, not all children who would benefit from summer nutrition assistance are currently being reached through existing Programs. Due to numerous barriers to access many children who are eligible for free and reduced-price school meals are not well served by traditional congregate summer meal sites. In particular, these challenges have been historically difficult to overcome in rural areas. The goal of this rule is to close access gaps and ensure that children receive critical nutrition assistance during the summer months.
Non-Congregate Meal Service
All Program regulations and guidance, instructions, and handbooks issued by the USDA Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) apply to both congregate and non-congregate operations except as otherwise specified through the rule.
Site: the place where a child receives a Program meal. A site may be the indoor or outdoor location where congregate meals are served, a stop on a delivery route of a mobile congregate meal service, or the distribution location or route for a non-congregate meal service. However, a child's residence is not considered a non-congregate meal site for Program monitoring purposes.
Congregate meal service: a food service at which meals that are provided to children are consumed on site in a supervised setting.
Non-congregate meal service: a food service at which meals are provided for children to consume all the components off-site. The definition further clarifies that non-congregate meal service must only be operated at sites designated as “rural” and with no “congregate meal service”.
- Any area in a county not a part of a Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSA) based on the OMB's delineation of MSAs.
- Any area in a county classified as a non-metropolitan area based on Rural-Urban Continuum Codes (RUCC) and Urban Influence Codes (UIC).
- Any census tract classified as a non-metropolitan area based on Rural Urban Commuting Area (RUCA) codes.
- Any area of an MSA not part of a Census Bureau-defined urban area. This criterion will allow for areas located within MSAs that are classified as rural according to National Center for Education Statistics’ (NCES) Locale Classifications and Criteria, which is based on the Census Bureau's urban and rural areas, to be designated as rural under the Program.
- Any area of a State, which is not part of an urban area as determined by the Secretary; or,
- Any “pocket” within an MSA which, at the option of the State agency and with FNS Regional Office (FNSRO) approval, is determined to be rural in character based on other data sources. These last two criteria provide discretion for the Department and the State agency to consider other areas that may not be identified through this new definition.
- Any subsequent substitution or update of the aforementioned classification schemes that Federal governing bodies create. This criterion is intended to accommodate updates or substitutions to the classification schemes that will be incorporated into the definition under this rule.
Conditional Non-Congregate Site: a site which qualifies for Program participation because it conducts a non-congregate meal service for children eligible for free or reduced-price meals in an area that does not meet the definition of “areas in which poor economic conditions exist” and is not a “Camp”.
- Areas in which poor economic conditions exist: (1) The attendance area of a school in which at least 50 percent of the enrolled children have been determined eligible for free or reduced price school meals under the NSLP and the School Breakfast Program (SBP); (2) A geographic area where, based on the most recent census data available or information provided from a department of welfare or zoning commission, at least 50 percent of the children residing in that area are eligible for free or reduced price school meals under the NSLP and the SBP; (3) A geographic area where a site demonstrates, based on other approved sources, that at least 50 percent of the children enrolled at the site are eligible for free or reduced price school meals under the NSLP and the SBP; or (4) A closed enrolled site in which at least 50 percent of the enrolled children at the site are eligible for free or reduced price school meals under the NSLP and the SBP, as determined by approval of applications.
- Camp: residential summer camps and nonresidential day camps which offer a regularly scheduled food service as part of an organized program for enrolled children. Nonresidential camp sites shall offer a continuous schedule of organized cultural or recreational programs for enrolled children between meal services.
- Non-congregate meals may be served to children who are not eligible for free or reduced-price meals in rural areas, but they may not be claimed for reimbursement.
New Site: a site which did not participate in the Program in the prior year, an experienced site that is proposing to operate a non-congregate meal service for the first time, or, as determined by the State agency, a site which has experienced significant staff turnover from the prior year.
Site Supervisor: the individual who has been trained by the sponsor and is responsible for all administrative and management activities at the site, including, but not limited to: maintaining documentation of meal deliveries, ensuring that all meals served are safe, and maintaining accurate point of service meal counts. Except for non-congregate meal service sites using delivery services, the individual is on site for the duration of the food service.
Operating Costs: the cost of operating a food service under the Program, including the: cost of obtaining food, labor directly involved in the preparation and service of food, cost of nonfood supplies, rental and use allowances for equipment and space, cost of transporting children in rural areas to meal service sites in rural areas, and costs to deliver non-congregate meals in rural areas.
Good Standing: the status of a program operator that meets its Program responsibilities, is current with its financial obligations, and, if applicable, has fully implemented all corrective actions within the required period of time. This definition is expected to be updated in USDA’s proposed rule on Serious Deficiency.
Non-Congregate Meal Service
States are allowed to provide program meals under the SFSP for non-congregate consumption in a rural area with no congregate meal service. In addition, under the new non-congregate provision, meals may only be claimed when served to children in an area in which poor economic conditions exist, or, in an area that is not an area in which poor economic conditions exist, if the child is determined to be eligible for free or reduced price school meals under the NSLP or the SBP. Finally, as with any meal served for congregate consumption, non-congregate meals must be served according to the number and type of meals allowed for the site type, and must meet all applicable State, Tribal, and local health, safety, and sanitation standards, and the nutritional standards prescribed under the Program meal pattern.
These meal service options may only be used by sponsors in good standing, as determined by the State agency. Furthermore, a State agency may prohibit sponsors from using these options only on a case-by-case basis and without regard to sponsor type if the State agency determines that a sponsor does not have the capability to operate or oversee non-congregate meal services at their sites. Finally, a State agency's decision to prohibit a sponsor from using an option is not an appealable action.
Option 1: Multi-Day Meal Issuance
This rule requires that the number of reimbursable meals provided to a child does not exceed the number of meals that could be provided over a 10-calendar day period. However, the State agency may establish a shorter calendar day period on a case-by-case basis for an individual sponsor, considering possible concerns regarding a sponsor's ability to ensure Program integrity, food safety, and meal quality.
For State agency approval to operate sites that provide multi-day meal service, sponsors opting to distribute multi-day meals must have procedures in place that document, to a reasonable extent, that the proper number of meals are distributed to each eligible child, these procedures must be included in the sponsor's application to participate in the Program and may also impose additional requirements, at the State's discretion. USDA encourages State agencies, when considering the imposition of additional multi-day meal issuance requirements, to also consider the potential challenges for participants to access sites.
This rule further requires that multi-day meal issuance may only be used by Program sponsors in good standing, and that State agencies may only prohibit sponsors from using these options on a case-by-case basis without regard to sponsor type, if the State agency determines that a sponsor does not have the capability to effectively operate or oversee non-congregate meal services at their sites.
Option 2: Parent or Guardian Meal Pick-Up
This rule allows State agency approved sponsors to distribute meals to parents or guardians to provide to their children. Sponsors opting to distribute meals to parents or guardians must ensure through documented procedures, approved by their State agency, that meals are only distributed to parents or guardians of eligible children, and that duplicate meals are not distributed to any child. Meals may be picked up by non-parent/guardians only if the eligible child is present at pick-up.
Option 3: Bulk Meal Items
This rule codifies the option for self-preparation sponsors approved to operate non-congregate meal service to provide bulk foods that meet the meal pattern requirements for each meal service type with added safeguards to ensure Program integrity and the health and safety of children. State agencies must determine whether a sponsor's proposed distribution of bulk food items meets State and local health, safety, and sanitation standards. In addition, when a sponsor is approved to use this option, the sponsor must ensure that:
- Required food components for each reimbursable meal served meet the meal pattern requirements;
- All food items that contribute to a reimbursable meal are clearly identifiable;
- Menus are provided and clearly indicate the food items and portion sizes for each reimbursable meal;
- Food preparation, such as heating or warming, is minimal. With State agency and FNSRO approval, sponsors may offer food items that would require further preparation in circumstances where distribution of such food items is justified and appropriate; and
- The maximum number of reimbursable meals provided to a child does not exceed the number of meals that could be provided over a 5-calendar day period (or less if the State agency established a shorter calendar day period on a case-by-case basis). However, a State agency can approve sponsors to provide up to 10 days' worth of bulk meals, also on a case-by-case basis, in appropriate circumstances such as extremely remote areas where more frequent distribution is impracticable. The approved time period may not exceed the time period for which the sponsor is approved for multi-day meal issuance.
Offer Versus Serve (OVS)
State agencies may only permit SFAs to operate OVS for non-congregate meal service. USDA encourages SFAs that intend to use OVS to carefully consider how to best implement this flexibility while ensuring that all meal service requirements are met.
Meal Service Times
Non-congregate meal service is subject to the time restrictions for meal service. Meal service times must be:
- Established for each site;
- Included in the sponsor's application and approved by the State agency; and
- Supported through State agency approved pick-up schedules or delivery plans with designated times for distribution.
Non-congregate meal service is exempt from requiring that breakfast must be served at or close to the beginning of the child's day, that one hour must elapse between meal services, and that meals not prepared on site must be delivered within one hour of the approved meal service time for congregate meal service.
Offsite Consumption of Food Items
The provisional flexibility to allow children to take specific food items for off-site consumption only applies to congregate meal service.
Under this rule, the basic monitoring requirements for type, number, and frequency of reviews will not change. However, to ensure all Program operations, both congregate and non-congregate, are properly adhering to Program requirements, USDA is amending the regulations to incorporate operational changes concerning pre-approval visits and sponsor and site review that reflect the introduction of non-congregate meal service.
Sponsor Training Responsibilities
Accordingly, this rule includes the addition of congregate and non-congregate meal service in the sponsor Program training sessions for its administrative and site personnel prior to the operation of a site's first meal service.
Sponsor Site Reviews
This rule codifies the requirement for sponsors to conduct pre-operational visits for new sites and those that experienced operational problems in the previous year before a site operates the Program. Similar to pre-approval visits conducted by the State agency, pre-operational visits conducted by the sponsor assist the sponsor in detecting potential operational issues prior to operation of the Program.
USDA also supports the use of virtual monitoring as a tool to supplement the required on-site monitoring reviews. Providing technical assistance and training through virtual technologies may also allow them to be offered more frequently and increase access to trainings, thereby supporting Program integrity. In addition, this rule will codify that existing sites that are new to non-congregate meal service are considered new sites; and as such are also required to have a pre-operational visit.
This rule also includes that all existing sites that are new to non-congregate meal service as sites needing a site visit conducted by the sponsor within the first two weeks of Program operations.
For more information read: Establishing the Summer EBT Program and Rural Non-Congregate Option in the Summer Meals Program and watch USDA's Webinar for Summer Meals Sponsors and Program Operators on the Rural Non-Congregate Summer Meal Service Interim Final Rule. For additional guidance, read USDA’s updated Question and Answer for SFSP and their Implementation Guidance for the Rural Non-congregate Option Provisions of
the Interim Final Rule. To help determine site eligibility, check out USDA's Rural Designation map.