Low-Income Kids Need School Lunches More Than Ever Now

CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. reed_sandridge

School administrators have asked the USDA for greater flexibility in providing emergency meals.

School closures due to the coronavirus mean that children across the United States have to go without formal lessons. But many are missing more than that; they're lacking meals that were formerly provided to them by school administrators. Two-thirds of the 31 million American kids who regularly eat school lunches depend heavily on those meals to nourish their bodies. As reported in Civil Eats, "Low-income kids similarly constitute the majority of the 14.6 million who eat school breakfast and the 1.3 million who receive an after-school supper." Now many people are wondering how these children will get by if their only reliable food source is no longer accessible.

Some programs do exist for feeding children when schools are unable, such as the Summer Food Service Program and the Seamless Summer Option, which can serve as a model for times like these. Such programs use alternative locations as meal service sites, such as churches, libraries, and community centers; but as Bettina Elias Siegel explains for Civil Eats, a district must be pre-approved to participate in these programs – and even if they're scrambling now to get that approval, who knows how long it could take. Another issue is the closure of many of these public sites, which is happening at a rapid rate.

Then there is the additional challenge of feeding groups of people at a time when groups of people are not supposed to be gathering. 'Congregate feeding', as it's called, is not safe during a viral outbreak and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have stated that administrators should "design [meal distribution] strategies to avoid distribution in settings where people might gather in a group or crowd... such as ‘grab-and-go’ bagged lunches or meal delivery."

Elias Siegel reports that, for all these reasons, the School Nutrition Association (SNA) is seeking "more flexibility" in responding to children's needs at a time of crisis. SNA has reached out to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, asking for key changes to the usual protocol. An open letter published earlier this month includes requests to allow all schools to offer emergency meals, to serve them on school sites in the CDC's recommended grab-and-go format, to allow delivery to satellite sites to minimize families' need to take public transit to access the meals, and to streamline the bureaucracy commonly associated with such feeding operations.

Perdue and his department have not responded directly to the letter, but waivers have been issued for a total of 14 states, as of March 12. These are Washington, California, Maryland, Alaska, Utah, Pennsylvania, Wyoming, Maine, Kansas, New Jersey, New York, South Carolina, South Dakota, and all are now allowed to serve free meals to children affected by school closures, while using a format that doesn't require them to sit down.

The other requests outlined in the letter have not yet been addressed, and as Siegel points out, the question of delivery remains a major problem, since many children cannot reach the feeding sites or may live in regions that do not qualify for the program. "That’s because the SFSP only allows meal service at 'area eligible' sites — that is, locations serving populations with at least 50 percent children entitled to free or reduced-price lunch, based on the latest U.S. Census data or school enrollment data." Hopefully Perdue gives the green light soon to satellite sites or delivery initiatives.

These are strange and alarming times, with the coronavirus situation evolving rapidly by the day. Low-income families suffer the most in times like these. They have less cash on hand to stockpile groceries and less space in which to store it; they may not have a vehicle in which to transport large quantities of food; their jobs tend to be more precarious, and other members of the community who normally make food and cash donations to local food banks may be thinking more about themselves these days. It's important to remember this and to continue donating, supporting, and showing compassion to less fortunate individuals in times of difficulty. It shouldn't be left entirely to school administrators to figure out how to feed hungry children; every community has a duty to ensure this happens.