This week’s post focuses on schools as a source of free- and reduced-price meals for children, and the disruption the COVID-19 pandemic has wrought on that function, just as families with children are facing increased levels of food insecurity.
Innovation in Feeding School Children
School breakfast and lunch programs in the U.S. play a meaningful role in the food security and nutrition of many children from low-income households. Even before the pandemic, shorter breaks from school (e.g., summer vacation) presented a challenge for school districts in providing continuity of meals for students. Widespread school building closures in the spring, and varying modes of instruction this fall, have emphasized the difficulties schools face in feeding children when school is not in session. An article in the American Journal of Public Health highlights these challenges amidst COVID-19, and documents the innovative responses that were created during the pandemic. The authors estimate that over 1.15 billion meals were missed among students who receive free and reduced-price meals due to school closures in spring 2020. Strategies to address this issue included changing delivery locations, adjusting the timing of food service, and expanding eligibility for meals to young children and adults. Despite these innovations, the authors note that many children were still missed meals they would have normally accessed in school. In a survey of K–12 food service operators in March, for instance, 31% reported a full shutdown of operations, and an additional 49% reported serving less than half of their previous meal volume.
The Scope of Food Insecurity
A recent report from the Urban Institute summarizing data from the second wave of their Coronavirus Tracking Survey (more information here) documents the scope of this issue among parents of school-aged children (n=2,239). Key findings include the fact that nearly one-quarter of respondents reported household food insecurity for the month of September, and that these rates differed by race and ethnicity. Black and Latinx families not only reported higher rates of current food insecurity compared to their white counterparts (39% and 41%, respectively, as compared to 15%), but also greater worries about having enough food in the next month (37% and 30% vs 10%). When children were not attending school fully in-person, nearly two-thirds received no school-provided replacement (e.g., grab-and-go meals). Only 34% of respondents were aware of Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT) programs. Even for those aware, only 68% reported actually receiving benefits. The authors recommend pursuing strategies to provide meals amidst virtual learning, simplifying P-EBT rules to facilitate take-up, and focusing interventions toward communities of color.
A September report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation summarized interviews conducted with adults in families with children (n=1,000) and reported similarly concerning numbers. They find:
- Among households with children, a majority (61%) say they are experiencing “serious financial problems” during the pandemic. Notably, most Latino (86%) and a majority of Black (66%) households with children report serious financial problems.
- A majority of households with children (59%) report serious challenges caring for their children and greater than one-third indicate problems with keeping their children’s education on track and progressing.
- 22% of households with children indicate that they have experienced serious problems affording food. And, among the 60% of households with children that experienced job/wage losses during the pandemic, 29% report significant challenges affording food.