Universal free school meals could alleviate hunger for millions of children, financial strain on schools

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty / Artem Tryhub
Source: Getty / Artem Tryhub

Related tags school meals Food for kids coronavirus food insecurity

Legislation proposed yesterday to provide all children free school meals not only would help feed the increasing number of children who face food insecurity due to the pandemic and associated economic downturn, but it would also ease financial strain on school meal programs on the brink of insolvency, according to stakeholders.

The Pandemic Child Hunger Prevention Act, introduced July 30 by House Committee on Education and Labor Chairman Robert Scott (Va.-03), would expand temporarily for the 2020-2021 school year to all children access to breakfast, lunch and afterschool snack programs either in school or through grab-and-go and delivery options, rather than limit participation to those who qualify for free or reduced meals.

If passed, the bill not only would reduce the risk of food insecurity for school children, it could help school meal programs recoup severe financial losses from higher costs of feeding children during the pandemic, which often required more labor, packaging and in some cases delivery expenses than during a typical school year.

Food insecurity during pandemic up almost 7 fold

Since the pandemic was declared the percentage of households with children reporting food insecurity has increased dramatically, according to research from the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities.

It notes that “11 to 20% of adults in households with children reported for the week ending July 21 that their children sometimes or often didn’t get enough to eat because of financial problems, figures that have stayed at similarly high levels over the past several weeks. That translates into roughly 9 to 17 million children living in households where the children couldn’t get enough food.”

It adds that these figures are “especially startling”​ because only about 3% of adults reported in 2018 that their children sometimes or often hadn’t eaten enough at some point in the previous 30 days.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest argues in a statement of support for the legislation that “as the pandemic continues into next school year, the need for free school meals will only grow as more families will financially struggle and become food insecure.”

It adds that this impact will disproportionally be felt by Black and Hispanic households with children.

“Both Black and Hispanic  households with children reported food insecurity rates twice that of while households with children. Nearly four in ten Black and Hispanic households with children report not having enough to eat, nearly twice the amount of white households with children,”​ it adds.

It also notes that during the pandemic and economic downturn, many families likely will sneak up on the “cusp of eligibility”​ for free and reduced meals, but may not tip over – meaning those children face food insecurity with limited means of redress. However, universal free meals would offer them relief as well.

Finally, CSPI notes, “providing free meals for all children removes any stigma children face from participating in the program.”

Legislation would ease schools’ burdens

The proposed legislation also comes at a time when many schools are facing increased burdens and when many meal programs are grappling with financial losses that threaten their ability to continue.

According to Scott’s office, school meal program directors reported in May average losses of $200,000 to upwards of $2.35 million – a financial blow that if left unchecked could cause some programs to become insolvent.

Unlike many other aspects of public education, the school meal program is expected to pay for itself – something that is easier to do in part if more children participate because administrators can secure less expensive rates for bulk food purchases. During the pandemic, participation dropped dramatically – often leaving only to participate those children whose families could not afford food. But by extending the service to all students, participation is expected to increase, bringing with it higher total reimbursement from the government and lower purchasing and preparation expenses.

The proposal also would ease the administrative burden on school officials at a time when many are scrambling to adjust curriculum and other services to be delivered virtually, if the pandemic continues to require social distancing and, in some places, stay-at-home orders, according to the School Nutrition Association, which supports the legislation.

The national non-profit professional organization explained in a same-day statement that “with a multitude of families newly-eligible for free and reduced-price meals, offering meals to all students at no charge spares overburdened schools the massive task of distributing and processing meal applications and … would also help maximize efforts to maintain social distancing during meal distribution, reducing the risk of COVID-19 exposure for staff and students.”

SNA also urges Congress to pass The Child Nutrition Relief Act of 2020, HR 7764, which was introduced US Rep. Nydia Velázquez (NY-7), which would extend all COVID-19 school feeding waivers through June 30, 2021, and allow them to provide meals even if schools do not offer in-person classes.

“Schools are considering vastly different learning models during the pandemic. Extending these waivers will allow school meal programs to seamlessly continue grab-and-go meal pick up for distance learners, serve meals to students in the classroom or adjust meal service in the event of a sudden COVID-19 school closure,”​ SNA explained in a statement.

Echoed the sentiment held by many stakeholders, SNA said, ultimately, “Congress must act to ensure school meal programs can meet this need in any setting and respond nimbly to abrupt changes. Providing school means at no charge to all students is the safest, most effective way to serve students and combat childhood hunger during the pandemic.”

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