“USDA must act to preserve [school meal] programs, which play a critical role in the public health response to the pandemic and combatting chronic child hunger,” the organization’s leaders wrote in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.
As the pandemic set in, students were approved to get free or discounted prepackaged grab-and-go breakfasts and lunches at thousands of emergency sites at public schools and community centers around the country. But with the summer break approaching, many feeding sites risk losing federal funds. School meal providers are facing having to drop out because of the lack of certainty for their operations.
Waivers from the federal government allowing schools to serve all students and granting some flexibility over what’s included in meals will expire June 30. Hunger advocacy experts say these are crucial for feeding needy American children as well as to ensure school districts have enough money to operate in the fall. While the Community Eligibility Provision waiver allows a district to feed all comers irrespective of documented need, the National Meal Pattern waiver provides flexibility in what can be given out.
Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and out-of-school time programs for Food Research and Action Center, a nonprofit organization for eradicating poverty-related hunger and undernutrition, is calling for continuing these programs.
“If families are in need, we think they should be able to come to a site and get food.”
The meal pattern waiver, she said, allows feeding sites flexibility to offer different food items or combinations than have been delineated by the USDA’s school lunch program. With food supply chains disrupted by the pandemic, she said, it’s essential to allow substitutions.
“While we want the meals to be as healthy as possible,” FitzSimons said. “If they are having a hard time getting fresh fruit, say, it’s important that they’re able to waive that.”
The USDA said in a statement that it was looking at “all options within our statutory and budget authority to assist program operators with the challenges they are facing during the current health crisis.”
Food insecurity doubled overall in the United States in April, tripling among households with children, according to a study by Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research. Another study, the Survey of Mothers with Young Children, said 40.9 percent of mothers with children ages 12 and under reported household food insecurity since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.
“There’s been an almost unfathomable increase in food insecurity,” said Lisa Davis, senior vice president of Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign. “It’s going to require a number of policies and programs working hand in glove.”
Food banks have been overwhelmed, with lines of cars reaching several miles from feeding sites. April saw the sharpest increase in grocery store prices in nearly 50 years. And now many urban grocery stores are boarding up after days of destruction and looting.
Thirty-nine states have been approved to operate an emergency electronic grocery debit card program, called Pandemic-EBT, according to the USDA, covering more than three-quarters of eligible students.
But many families have not yet received money from the program. Davis said states don’t have up-to-date rosters of all the children getting free and reduced meals. Families may move during the school year, parents may sign kids up using a nickname and there may be language barriers that complicate paperwork.
In addition, Davis said a lot of families don’t know how to access the food stamps program called SNAP, so being able to go and safely pick up a couple days’ worth of food from the school summer programs is crucial.
“The systems are antiquated, and trying to coordinate across multiple agencies at a time when staff is already stretched thin is hard,” Davis said.
Many school districts have already transitioned to the Summer Food Service Program. The Livingston School District in Montana is running five buses a day, with food service staff and school employees wearing masks and gloves passing meals through bus windows at 18 distribution spots to families who arrive on foot or by car.
Aubrey Johnson, in her second year of service with FoodCorps, part of AmeriCorps, has been making carrot and quinoa muffins, oatmeal bars and chickpea and wheatberry salad, packaging them along with restaurant meals from a pilot program in paper or plastic bags.
“One of the big things has been getting some restaurant partnerships to offset the workload and the cost of preparing meals for 500 kids,” Johnson said by phone.
Around the country, public-private strategies like these have popped up, many of them in jeopardy if the Trump administration doesn’t loosen its rules.
Giridhar Mallya, senior policy officer at Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, said that public agencies are finding ways to operate beyond capacity during the pandemic and that schools have had to figure out different ways to get food to children and their families.
“The networks built over the past two months will help with summer feeding,” he said. “We think about school breakfast and lunch as public health programs. The primary goal is keeping people from going hungry, but it also has clear health impacts.”
Bradley Tusk, a venture capitalist and founder of Tusk Philanthropies, which runs legislative campaigns in states to expand access to school meals for American children, said this past week’s civil unrest may galvanize the USDA into extending the policies that would allow all students to be fed during the summer and give feeding programs flexibility in what is served.
“You have a White House that seems to now understand that there’s a massive problem on their hands,” Tusk said by phone. “If we can frame the argument around so many more families and so many more kids are going to need help than ever, does the USDA want to be accused of taking the food out of the mouths of kids who need it?”