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America’s schools are first and foremost centers of education, but for millions of students and families they are much more. Schools are sources of nutritional foods, healthcare services, and many also act as a resource hub for various community support services. As the pandemic rages on educational centers are finding ways to maintain these functions despite a general strain on funding. Since the school year has commenced however, CARES Act, State, and local funding have been limited in their scope and ability to support the other functions of schools due to the budget measures that don’t account for decreased attendance or enrollment, and the challenges that come with the absence of in-person classes. This has left students and families unable to meet one of their most basic needs — nutritious and sufficient food.

The CARES Act offered funding for schools to provide lunch to all students throughout the summer, which had some success. Additionally, Bill H.R. 6201 (Families First Coronavirus Response Act), passed in March but previously set to expire September 30th, gave the USDA added flexibility for school lunch waiver programs — permitting meals to be picked up by parents, served outside the required group settings and times, allowing meals to be served at no cost to everyone, and waiving meal pattern requirements. Upon calls for an extension and a brief debate on who has authority to extend the waivers, the USDA has continued the flexible lunch waiver program until December 31st so that administrators have time to plan for the normal school-year food services whether they be back in the classroom or still remote. Once the new year begins however, the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs will revert to a less flexible model, which relies on students who pay for meals in full, requiring paperwork and eligibility to be verified, and having parents pick up meals from each student’s individual school, which can be a transportation burden for parents whose students are not attending school in-person. The logistics of planning school meal distribution outside of an entirely in-person school year take time, staff, and money, not to mention the time it takes to file paperwork, register eligible students and find new meals appropriate for grab-and-go systems.

In response to growing food insecurity for low-income families and the major burden schools face in addressing this alone, House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.) proposed the Pandemic Child Hunger Prevention Act (Bill H.R. 7887) in late July. The bill states that all students get free meals for the entirety of the 20-21 school year. Similar to the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, this would extend the ability and funding for all public schools and non-profit educational centers to provide meals without determining eligibility or following the other Breakfast and Lunch program requirements. It would be critical in ensuring that the 30 million students who receive school food have easy access to meals whether or not they are going to classes in-person. With districts already strained due to fewer students paying for meals — in May, school food “program directors reported a median estimated loss of $200,000 per district…as much as $2.35 million in larger districts” — this bill would reduce administrative burdens and provide districts with more robust meal reimbursements so they can focus on instructional and reopening plans.

The extension of the USDA school food waiver program and the potential new legislature are good signs that our lawmakers are taking child hunger seriously. The current loss in meal reimbursement revenue and inability of districts to manage and pay for safety measures and Covid-compliant grab-and-go meals still leaves many behind. Districts across California are struggling to come up with funds for meals and staff to distribute or package them, despite there being a drop in demand. Many districts across the nation are now using state-allocated emergency funds, requesting money from FEMA, or calling on their city to distribute CARES Act discretionary funds to meal programs. While schools are scrambling to connect students with food, surveys indicate that families are still in need — about 17% of mothers with kids under 12 are cutting down on or skipping meals, and over 30% of families have cut spending for food due to lack of income.

Despite critics suggesting the universal free school meal programs are a drain on resources, they are a critical source of food for families out of work who just aren’t able to meet their needs through other aid programs. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has provided families with increased benefits to account for the extra meals children are missing out on while they are distance learning. Nevertheless, the demand for grab-and-go meals and the survey results demonstrating that a large portion of families are not able to financially provide meals for their kids indicates that the SNAP programs and unemployment are not enough to keep kids full.

Until students are back in school and unemployment rates decrease, there will continue to be food insecurity for school-aged children, particularly affecting families of color. A more streamlined school meal distribution system, funding addressing school food, district collaboration with food banks or local non-profits, and multi-layered approaches to addressing food insecurities on the family and student level are key to keeping students adequately fed and their nutritional needs met so they have the best chances of succeeding in school.

Resistance Resources:

School Nutrition Association (SNA) Action Network — The SNA is a group of school nutrition professionals who advocate for policies and research topics related to school nutrition. Check out their Action Network website for a list of advocacy tools, from petitions to sign, to fill-in templates to send letters to your Congress Member, to resources for state school nutrition policy and grassroots organization.

Feeding America — An advocacy organization working to end hunger in America, Feeding America has an Action page that connects you to various resources to help end hunger for children and adults. See their page for fill-in templates to write to your congress people, petitions to sign, or food banks in your area to get connected with.

Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) — FRAC researches, analyzes and advocates for food security and healthy food for all. They have a breadth of research on the impact of school food and the National School Lunch Program. See their page to get connected with the agency that runs the program in your locality, connect with congress people, or get involved with their legislative action center.

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