Updated: October 15, 2020
Millions of students across the country rely on school for at least one meal a day – and in some cases receive three meals a day from their school. When schools are fully remote or reopen under hybrid models of instruction, what can policymakers do to ensure children are still receiving the food they need?
As of 2016, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates nearly 16 percent of children, or 13 million, live in food insecure households, which the USDA defines as “a household that lacks consistent access to food for an active and healthy life.” Despite the existence of multiple federal programs – most notably the National School Lunch Program – that were created to overcome the food insecurity students face, persistent meal gaps exist for our most vulnerable. This is especially true for students in rural areas, where access to grocery stores is scarce, as well as racial minority groups who are more likely to live in poverty than their white peers. Some districts have seen a nearly 90 percent decrease in the number of meals they are serving per day than they were pre-COVID-19. With schools across the nation resuming instruction, primarily in fully remote or hybrid models, access to food has remained a priority for many states, and will continue to require innovative policy and partnership to solve.
Providing access to food in- and out-of-school is done through three programs that are administered by the USDA:
These programs provide guidance on what food children can be served, the price of meals, and options for students from low-income households by providing agencies with reimbursements through the Free/Reduced-Price Lunch (FRL) program.
In communities where over 40 percent of students qualify for a federal free meals program, the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) option is available. CEP allows schools and districts to serve meals to all enrolled students free of charge – and without collecting household applications for the program. Schools and districts that do not qualify for the CEP option must collect applications to determine which of the students they serve qualify for the FRL program.
In communities where at least 50 percent of children qualify for the FRL program, qualified providers can also run sites through the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP). There are typically certain regulations that must be followed by SFSP providers. For instance, meal service must be served congregate-style to foster conversation, or a child must be present in order to pick-up the meal. However, considering the need for social distancing, the USDA waived this and other requirements. This has allowed some sites to be creative in how meals are distributed, either through grab-n-go or drive-thru, or by allowing an adult to pick up multiple meals for multiple children. In other cases, school districts have worked with their transportation departments to allow bus drivers, who are out of work because of school closures, to deliver meals to students.
Because of waivers provided by the USDA, state agencies now have the ability to expedite sign-off on meal site plans. For any meal site taking advantage of these various waivers, they must submit a report that details how the waivers were used and their role in improving access to participants.
Waivers provided by the USDA and the implementation of new programs have also been evolving at the federal and state level. After the passing of the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act, passed by the U.S. Congress on March 18th, the USDA was given authority to create the new Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT). Through this program, families can receive benefits in the amount of each meal missed by school-aged children eligible for FRL, who would have otherwise received these meals if schools were not closed. All 50 states, as well as Washington D.C. and the U.S. Virgin Islands have been approved for this benefit. Recognizing that the number of children eligible for FRL has increased across every state, the USDA has begun amending the original benefit amount transferred to each state, so more families are able to access the benefit. More information about USDA waivers and how to apply them can be found here.
Across the country, best practices have emerged from local school districts have found success providing meals to students during the spring and summer. Cincinnati Public Schools is seen as one such district, according to the Food Research and Action Center. They set up walk up and drive-thru meal sites that serve two-days’ worth of meals on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and are open to any child ages 1-18. More information on this and other school district efforts to provide meals can be found here.
The United States Congress has already taken steps to provide states with flexibility during this time of crisis. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act has allowed for many states and agencies to provide relief in the form of waiving certain in-person requirements necessary to complete the process to receive benefits, and waiving work requirements to receive benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (the federal nutrition assistance program that provides benefits to households in order to move the family into self-sufficiency). Expanding access to general anti-poverty and anti-hunger programs at the federal level may provide some relief for families who are impacted by the recession brought on by COVID-19 and the limitations of school meal programs. However, even with the many waivers and efforts by states and districts, there are still some who will struggle with food insecurity while in-person instruction remains limited. They may not be eligible for other federal subsidies, or federal programs may not provide sufficient resources for their family. In order to provide households and families with more options during this time, state policymakers may consider the following options:
The USDA established the P-EBT provision for the purpose of aiding children who would have otherwise received FRL school meals. To qualify, state leaders must submit applications and receive approval from USDA to receive P-EBT funding. In the spring, the agency issued guidance for states on how to submit plans, which must include detailing how the state will distribute P-EBT funds to families. These benefits will be available to both those who participate in SNAP and those who do not, and can be given retroactively. This is a viable option for families who may struggle with transportation to reach a site that distributes meals because it gives them access to money to purchase food. A handful of states have received amendments to expand and extend access to these benefits, and other states should also seek an extension so that these supports can reach more families in need. To find out if your state has been approved for a waiver and extension, you can visit the USDA Coronavirus Pandemic-EBT site.
To provide meals to students who live in areas with less than 50 percent of students qualifying for FRL, 48 states sought Area Eligibility waivers. These waivers allow communities that do not meet the threshold required for SFSP programs to open meal sites and expand access to food regardless of household income levels. It would also provide cafeteria workers the opportunity to earn income while in-person instruction remains limited and, if used in conjunction with the delivery option, would provide the same for bus drivers. The eligibility waiver allows state programs to be reimbursed for providing meals to a student who does not live within an eligible area and has been extended through December 31, 2020. Since many states have already applied and been approved for this waiver, states should work to ensure that eligible sites are able to open, and remain open, so they can provide food for students through the end of 2020. If you are interested in the waivers your state has been approved to use, please visit the USDA Food and Nutrition Service Response to COVID-19 website.
For many of the food and nutrition benefits available under WIC, there is a requirement that the recipient complete some part of the process in person, be it through interviews, undergoing health screenings to determine nutritional health risk, or physically picking up the benefits cards/coupons. These requirements have always been a barrier to the service, but now that there is a need to practice social distancing, Congress waived this requirement for those already receiving or newly eligible for WIC. This provision of the Act was also created to speed up the process so those who need the benefits can receive them more quickly. For states that have already been approved for waivers to these requirements, the USDA has extended the waivers through September 30, 2020 to allow states to continue reopening without potentially harming or recreating barriers to the benefits. The USDA – Food and Nutrition Services has also provided $500 million in supplemental funds to the WIC program, which will be distributed through December 31, 2020. It is up to the state and its agencies to inform the public through multiple mediums about these changes and encourage low-income women to apply.
An up-to-date list of Child Nutrition and USDA waivers requested in your state can be found here.