Lost in the pandemic: Millions of school breakfasts and lunches
Even as childhood hunger was on the increase during the pandemic, student participation in school breakfast and lunch programs dropped sharply, according to a report released last week by the Food Research & Action Center.
The report, The Reach of Breakfast and Lunch: A Look at Pandemic and Pre-Pandemic Participation, found that on an average day during the 2020-21 school year, almost 14 million students received breakfast and 19.8 million students received lunch. This represents a decrease in participation of 4.7 percent for breakfast and a whopping 30.7 percent decrease for lunch when compared to the 2018-2019 school year, the last full school year before the pandemic.
“Childhood hunger in this country has spiked dramatically as a result of the public health and economic fallout of COVID-19,” said FRAC President Luis Guardia in a statement. “But things would be far worse if not for child nutrition waivers, and the hard work of states, school nutrition directors, and community-based organizations, which has supported access to school and summer meals during this unprecedented time.”
Early into the pandemic, the main reason behind the drop-off appeared to be the disruption in in-person school attendance; in March 2020, almost all schools shut down when a pandemic was first declared, with schools shifting to virtual learning.
As the pandemic went on, however, the cause of the decline became more complicated. Schools juggled hybrid schedules, in-person and remote learning, and significant number of student absences due to illness or quarantine, along with staff shortages, supply chain disruptions, and tight budgets.
In 2020, Congress gave the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) the authority to issue nationwide child nutrition waivers when it passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. These waivers have allowed school nutrition programs, local government agencies, and nonprofit organizations to keep feeding children in the face of numerous challenges such as school closings, virtual learning, and the need to social distance.
According to the FRAC report, the waivers remain critical due to the ongoing supply chain disruptions and staffing shortages, and are needed to support access to meals this summer. However, without Congressional action, the waivers will expire on June 30.
FRAC and nearly 2,000 national, state, and local organizations from every state across the country, and the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, are urging Congress to swiftly extend USDA authority to issue nationwide waivers for the Child Nutrition Programs beyond this school year.
“Now is not the time to pull the rug out from children and families,” said Guardia. “It will take a long time for many families to recover from the challenges brought on by the pandemic and we need to make sure they have the resources they need to get back on their feet. The decrease in meal participation revealed in our report supports the urgent need for these child nutrition waivers to be extended beyond this school year as schools and community-based organizations recover from the impact of the pandemic.”
In addition to extending the waivers, there is one other thing Congress could do to expand school breakfast and lunch participation. It could pass the Build Back Better Act. According to the FRAC report, the House-approved version of the Build Back Better Act would:
- Expand the number of schools that would be able to offer free meals to all students through the Community Eligibility Provision by lowering the eligibility threshold (based on the proportion of children eligible for free school meals because they had in the previous year qualified for means-tested benefits such as SNAP) from 40 percent to 25 percent – making more schools eligible – and increasing the proportion of meals that will be reimbursed by the federal government at the higher free meals rate — making it a more financially viable option for eligible schools.
- Give states the option to implement the Community Eligibility Provision statewide, allowing all students in a state to receive school breakfast and lunch at no charge.
- Extend Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) nationwide for students who receive free or reduced-price school meals, and would allow states as well as Indian Tribal Organizations that participate in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) to provide Summer EBT.
A 30 percent drop in school lunch participation is a stunning decline. It’s more evidence of the pandemic’s toll on in-school attendance, either due to virtual schooling, spiking absenteeism, or children dropping out or not enrolling. The nutrition waivers got food to many of the children no longer getting meals at school, staving off hunger for many. But we know the problem will not be resolved overnight. Despite the importance of the waivers, 10.7 million adults with children reported earlier this month that they sometimes or often did not have enough to eat in the previous week (13 percent). FRAC’s report shows how vital it will be to continue and improve upon the aid available to our nation’s children.