Feeding children during a pandemic

Joseph Molieri/Bread for the World

By Todd Post

COVID-19 has disrupted the plans of every school district across the United States. No one knows how long it will be until all our nation’s children have access to the education they need, since this means establishing safe, workable, and sustainable school systems.

The nationwide effects of school closures on child hunger, especially the long-term effects, are not at all clear. Bread for the World has for many years emphasized that school meal programs are absolutely essential to prevent children from going hungry. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of children were living in food-insecure families—some with annual incomes below the federal poverty threshold (which as of January 2020 was just over $26,000 for a family of four), and many more whose incomes are higher but still not enough to cover basic needs.

Not only do school meals give children access to the food they need, but they also help prevent hunger among parents and other adults in food-insecure households by freeing up resources for additional groceries. Parents are less likely to have to skip meals to ensure that their kids have enough to eat at home.

A recent study shows that the higher nutrition standards enacted in the Healthy Hunger Free Schools Act of 2010 led to significant improvements in nutrition outcomes for children living in poverty. For millions of children, the meals served at school are more nutritious than those at home.

Almost everyone enjoys summer. Better weather and more daylight have allowed many people to get together in small groups outside, even though these gatherings look different from the ones we had in years past. Research shows that summer can be a hungry time for families whose children have free or reduced-price school meals. The Summer Nutrition Program is a poor substitute because it reaches only one child in seven who qualifies for free or reduced-price meals during the school year.

 This is why Bread for the World has called for expansion of the Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) Program, most recently as part of the 2020 Offering of Letters. Summer EBT, as it is better known, tops off a family’s monthly SNAP benefits with an amount similar to the value of the meals that children receive at school. It is relatively easy to administer since the extra funds can just be loaded onto the family’s SNAP EBT card. But the program is not available in every state, so millions of food-insecure families don’t benefit from it.

When schools closed nationwide in March, school meal programs closed down as well. It is as though it has been summer break for six months and counting. Fortunately, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act established a program known as Pandemic-EBT (P-EBT) that provides eligible families with debit cards holding the replacement value of their children’s free or reduced-price meals.

Bureaucracies don’t adjust quickly. States had to apply to participate in P-EBT, and some were slow to overcome administrative hurdles. After two months, only about 15 percent of eligible children were actually receiving the benefit. Child hunger rates soared in those early months. By July, however, nearly all states had been approved, and the program began to have a greater impact on hunger among children. Researchers at the Brookings Institution concluded that P-EBT reduced child hunger by 30 percent.

When Congress created P-EBT, it did not authorize the program to extend into the 2020-2021 school year. At the time of this writing, Congress is still debating whether to extend the program. Because schools have been forced to postpone reopening, failing to extend P-EBT would put a lot of children and their parents at greater risk of hunger. This is absolutely unnecessary. Americans certainly want schools to open and cafeterias to serve meals again, but not until it is safe for them to do so.

School meal programs are important to many people in addition to children and their parents. In the early weeks of the pandemic, the media carried many reports of farmers dumping milk, smashing eggs, and plowing vegetable crops under. School closures had a lot to do with that. Institutional purchasers such as schools, food banks, hospitals, and the military are a large part of the market for what farmers produce, and that market suddenly shrank dramatically. In turn, school closures also affected the jobs of food processors, truck drivers, cafeteria staff, and other food system workers.

Food systems are the focus of the 2020 Hunger Report: Better Nutrition, Better Tomorrow. In the report, we highlight the role of schools in food systems. There is much more to say about improving school meal programs, but the most urgent matters are securing an extension of P-EBT and sufficient funding for SNAP, nearly half of whose participants are children. The United States is fortunate to have the resources needed to keep its children from going hungry, and these resources must be made available to those in need.

Todd Post is senior researcher, writer, and editor with Bread for the World Institute.

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