Coronavirus Means School Food Is Free. What If It Stayed That Way?
By Levi Pulkkinen
Tracy Renecker has been working almost nonstop since the pandemic hit. A kitchen manager with the 16,000-student school district serving central Yakima in Washington state, Renecker has been ordering ingredients, packing entrees and sides, and filling grocery sacks to build the five-breakfast, five-lunch kits passed out at the drive-up distribution point outside Washington Middle School, where she works.
Renecker knows what the bags of cut vegetables, single-serve cereal boxes and heat-and-eat bowls mean to parents picking them up each week. They are a lifeline to families, including her own. The school meal program “helps stretch our money,” says the former nursing assistant who is raising a 6-year-old and a 13-year-old.
“I was a hungry child at one point, and I would hate to see any child go hungry,” Renecker says. “I know they can’t learn when they’re worried about when they’re going to be fed.”
Yakima, an agricultural hub surrounded by orchards amid dry hills, has been hit hard by both the pandemic and the subsequent economic collapse. Summer brought spikes in infections — at least three of which sent children to the hospital — and unemployment, which nearly doubled in the area.
Many Yakima families qualified for food stamps or other forms of federal assistance before the pandemic hit, and that softened the blow in one specific way: The city’s schools already offered meals to all students for free, year-round. That’s because they participate in several U.S. Department of Agriculture programs, including one allowing school districts where more than 40 percent of children are in households that rely on social services like food stamps to feed every student at no cost to families.
Hundreds of American school districts that qualify for USDA’s Community Eligibility Provision don’t join it, largely due to costs. Reimbursement rates to school districts are based on the percentage of students receiving social supports, and districts close to the 40 percent cutoff may end up spending more than they otherwise would.
Today, though, nearly every school in the country can hand out meals for free, thanks to the emergency extension of a USDA school food program meant to provide no-cost meals to kids during the summer. After months of uncertainty, the USDA announced last month that the expansion would last until the end of the school year.
“School meals are just as important to students’ ability to succeed in school as textbooks and transportation.”
Crystal FitzSimons of the Food Research & Action Center
The reprieve highlights an emergent truth: Schools feed America’s children. And the pandemic has forced schools toward providing free food to all students, long the dream of those fighting child hunger.
“That’s the best way to operate school nutrition programs,” says Crystal FitzSimons, a policy analyst for child nutrition at the Food Research & Action Center, a Washington, D.C.–based advocacy organization lobbying for anti-hunger programs. “School meals are just as important to students’ ability to succeed in school as textbooks and transportation.”
Early in the pandemic, the USDA dropped strict rules dictating how and when meals could be served while allowing schools to hand out a week’s worth of meals at a time and rapidly expanding food support programs. It hasn’t been enough to stop hunger from spiking to historic highs, but it has taken the edge off for millions of kids. (While other USDA programs help feed adult caregivers, typically schools provide meals only for children.)
In normal times, 2.5 million children are food insecure. Today, experts say child hunger has skyrocketed. While firm data is not yet available, surveys taken over the summer found that around 40 percent of families with young children worried about food, a fourfold increase over pre-pandemic levels, according to Children’s HealthWatch, a research and policy organization run through Boston Medical Center. And Census Bureau surveys show that children in 1 in 6 American households were not eating enough in June because their families couldn’t afford food, according to a Brookings Institution review of those responses. Brookings estimated as many as 14 million children were going hungry in June.
Feeding that many kids is expensive. The USDA has yet to say how much spending has increased since the start of the pandemic, and it was already spending plenty. A pre-COVID-19 estimate projected that $25.5 billion would be spent during the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 for all nutrition initiatives aimed at children, including the $13.5 billion school lunch program.
The rise in hunger comes down to two elements: need and access, according to Kelley McDonough, a senior program manager for No Kid Hungry, an anti-hunger advocacy group. The need created by the pandemic’s economic shock is unprecedented, McDonough says. At the same time, school closures and stay-at-home orders have disrupted how Americans access the country’s web of nutrition programs.
“Many families, especially those who are new to need, may not know that these programs exist or how to apply [for] them,” McDonough says. “Some families may forgo accessing these programs because they feel a sense of stigma, shame or distrust at accepting help in feeding their children.”
Opponents of the USDA free meals initiatives argue they end up feeding children from well-to-do homes, spending money better saved or spent on children who are truly in need. Jonathan Butcher, senior policy analyst with Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy engine, said previously that the school meals programs are “ballooning into a federal food entitlement for every child, regardless of need.” Butcher and others argued against Congressional efforts to expand the Community Eligibility Provision program put forward before the USDA expanded its other free meals programs in October.
Serving every child free school meals would remove that stigma, advocates argue. The federal government began buying surplus food for schoolchildren during the Great Depression. In 1946, the National School Lunch Program was launched because many of America’s young men had been too malnourished to serve in the military and commodity prices were dropping rapidly in the postwar economy. Steady expansions since have transformed free school meal programs into a crucial support for children whose caregivers’ incomes don’t fill the pantry. The school-to-stomach link has only strengthened as the science connecting nutrition and learning has advanced.
Early deficiencies in iron and other nutrients have been linked to poor motor and language skills, as well as lasting changes in how children’s brains take shape and how their bodies use dopamine, a neurotransmitter tied to impulse control and pleasure. Hyperactivity and poor memory are also thought to sometimes stem from childhood hunger. None of those conditions is conducive to learning, either in school or at home.
And then there’s the stress of not knowing where the next meal is coming from.
Worry is an early symptom of what those who monitor hunger refer to as “food insecurity,” a spectrum that begins with a person’s concern that they won’t be able to buy food and extends to reduced or missed meals, or “very low food security” in the USDA parlance.
“Food insecurity, it affects the biology of a child’s development at a cellular level,” says Richard Sheward, director of innovative partnerships at Children’s HealthWatch.
Children facing two or more stressors — food insecurity and housing instability often occur in tandem — are nine times as likely to experience developmental delays or poor health as children free of those pressures, Sheward says.
“The federal nutrition programs,” Sheward says, “are really the best medicines we have.”
- Levi Pulkkinen Contact Levi Pulkkinen