As the COVID-19 pandemic continues on, companies, cafeteria workers, and government agencies have been working tirelessly to feed children—and get food to the millions of kids eligible for free or reduced-price school meals. But there's much work still to be done.

By Sarah Lindenfeld Hall
November 09, 2020
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When schools across the country shut down in March, getting children the school meals they needed became yet another crucially important hurdle of the COVID-19 pandemic. After all, no longer could kids who were eligible for free or reduced-price meals rely on the 15 million breakfasts and 30 million lunches they picked up from their cafeterias each day.

And missed meals have far-reaching consequences. Studies show that the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program are vital for kids who come from food-insecure households, bolstering their ability to learn and grow.

As a cafeteria manager at a school in North Carolina, Reggie Ross remembers a student who came to him on a Monday morning, eager for a nutritious breakfast. He'd eaten only chips and cookies over the weekend.

"Sometimes we forget the fact that some of our students face really challenging situations at home and are not getting nutritious meals," says Ross, now president of the School Nutrition Association.

In fact, an October analysis of Census Bureau data finds that 4 in 10 American children live in households that struggle to afford food and other basics.

More than 1.15 billion school meals were not served from March 9 to May 1 alone, according to a new study published in the American Journal of Public Health. This figure could be an underestimate, too, says the report's first author, Eliza W. Kinsey, Ph.D., an associate research scientist at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. "We definitely think the number of eligible families for free and reduced-price lunch would have increased with people being out of work."

So the need for food? It has only grown.

To fill the gaps, cafeteria workers have started delivering meals, companies have pivoted their businesses to better serve hungry kids, and federal agencies have taken action.

But there are still a lot of hurdles, with the biggest issue of all being that kids are still hungry.

Here, what lies ahead, what needs to change, and how you can help—or get the help you need.

Feeding Hungry Kids Isn't Always Easy

Without kids coming to school daily, it's not always easy to get food to families. Some families may have no way to travel to a school or community site (they might not have a car or they might worry about riding public transit during the pandemic). Parents might also work during scheduled meal pickup times.

In neighborhoods that aren't safe? Parents may not let their children go outside to get their meals.

And though the national program is open to all, regardless of their immigration status, families with undocumented students might fear deportation if they pick up food.

There can be a stigma attached to those who rely on the meals, too, preventing some from seeking them out.

School cafeterias are also struggling to keep up. A new survey from the School Nutrition Association found that the extra cost to feed kids during the pandemic coupled with the loss of revenue from lunch sales and elsewhere has led to mounting financial shortfalls for school districts across the country.

And, as schools move between virtual, hybrid, and in-person education, delivering meals to students requires lots of flexibility and creativity.

What's Being Done

Despite the risks to themselves as COVID spread, in the early days of the pandemic, school cafeteria workers emerged as frontline workers feeding children in need: They set up drive-up grab-and-go stations, sent food out via school buses and taxi drivers, and established community pickup sites where families can collect food for the day and even the week.

The monumental efforts worked to some extent too: Millions of kids haven't gone hungry.

"We are focusing on making certain students are fed," says Ross, who also works as a liaison between the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction and more than 40 school meal programs in the state. "We're doing our very best to reach as many students as we can."

Agencies and businesses across the country also have gotten innovative. Revolution Foods, a business that collaborates with schools on meal programs, "pivoted hard" in March to reach families in need, says Kristin Groos Richmond, the company's CEO and chairman. Meals are now, for example, delivered via drop-in and drive-through sites in some places and even directly to students' homes.

Groups like the New York Common Pantry are picking up the slack, too. Early on, it launched a mobile pantry and partnered with agencies to deliver bags of food to families.

And government initiatives have helped. Since March, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved waivers to the national school lunch and breakfast programs, which it administers, to give schools flexibility. The waivers made grab-and-go sites, curbside pickup, and home delivery possible and ensured meals were available through the summer.

The agriculture department has approved universal free lunch through the 2020-21 school year, letting any child, regardless of whether they qualify for it, get a free school meal.

In the spring, Congress approved Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer, or P-EBT, to provide eligible families with a voucher that is equal to the value of the meals that their children missed at school, so parents could buy food for them. The program, according to the Brookings Institution, lifted as many as 3.9 million children out of hunger. This fall, it was extended to cover the current school year and include students at child care centers.

Yet, while these are promising measures, they're—again—not enough. "The problem, as we sit today, is that really only a fraction of the kids who need meals are getting them," says Billy Shore, founder of Share Our Strength, the parent organization for the No Kid Hungry Campaign.

How to Get the Help You Need

If you're struggling to feed your children, there is help. Here's how to find it.

  • Get connected. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has links to a variety of resources available to families who need help feeding their kids. They include a school meals finder where you can plug in your address to find meal sites near you. You'll also find information about how to request assistance through federal anti-hunger programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), once called food stamps, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). Hunger Free America also operates the agriculture department's national hotline that connects people with emergency food providers, government assistance programs, and other social services.
  • Reach out. Check in with your child's school and local service agencies, such as food banks or your child's after-school program, to find out what might be available. The New York Common Pantry, for example, identifies families in need by working with an early learning service, foster care agency, and after-school program, among other groups in New York.
  • Investigate P-EBT. Parents are eligible to receive P-EBT if their children receive free or reduced-price school meals or if they attend a school where all students get free meals, according to the Food Research & Action Center. Parents who have been laid off or have had their wages cut may also be able to receive the support. Each state runs the program differently, so you'll need to check in with your state to find out how to qualify for the program. The center has an interactive map with links to state agencies that issue the benefits.

How to Help Families In Need

Wondering how to help hungry families? Here are some options.

  • Offer your time. Contact the school nutrition director or manager at your child's school or district to find out what they need, Ross says. It might include distributing meals or spreading the word that food is available to those who need it.
  • Donate funds. As job losses and furloughs have grown, people have overwhelmed food banks across the country. Feeding America reports a 60 percent increase in the number of people seeking food. You can help by supporting programs like Feeding America or your local food bank. No Kid Hungry has provided more than $30 million in emergency grants to schools since March, so they can continue to serve students. It also is seeking donations as part of its Monday Fund.
  • Be an advocate. The proposed Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions or HEROES Act, which passed the U.S. House, but not the U.S. Senate, included an increase in SNAP benefits. "The best option is to make sure that families have the resources they need to make what they think are the right choices for their kids as opposed to being dependent on what a school system can provide," Shore says. "The magnitude of this challenge is that there really is no substitute for good policy."

    He encourages parents to reach out to their representatives in Congress to make the case for why SNAP benefits should be increased and why schools should continue to have flexibility in the way they serve students meals even after the pandemic.

    COVID made it clear to everyone how big an issue hunger was and has always been, explains Judy Secon, New York Common Pantry's senior director of programs and operations. And she doesn't expect the need to wane once a vaccine comes along. "It will be a long time before the economic recovery is fully felt."

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