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Pandemic brought 17% drop in school meals

Federal waivers that allowed schools to hand out “grab and go” meals to students, and that made meals free to all students, were powerful tools in blunting the impact of the pandemic on food insecurity among children, said USDA economists. Although the number of school meals declined 17% in fiscal 2020, because of the waivers 1.7 billion meals were served from March-May 2020 “that may have otherwise not been distributed,” they said in a COVID-19 working paper.

All told, 7.9 billion meals were served during fiscal 2020, compared with 9.5 billion in the preceding year through the school lunch, breakfast, day care, and summer food programs. Some 1.3 billion meals were distributed through the summer food program, nine times its usual volume. Schools used the program to distribute meals to students while classrooms were closed.

“The sudden disruption to the child nutrition programs and the subsequent federal response were unprecedented,” said the working paper. “As schools and childcare providers nationwide began closing in March 2020 in response to the pandemic, children were set to lose access to nearly 3 billion meals, and their associated [nutrition and health] benefits, through the end of the school year.”

The huge increase in meals served under summer food rules greatly offset reductions in the school lunch, breakfast, and day care programs. Some 1.1 billion meals were served through those programs during March, April, and May of 2020, less than 40% of the 2.9 billion served during the same period before the the pandemic.

According to the working paper, 564 million meals were served through free-meal sites operating under summer food rules during March, April, and May of 2020. In the Census Bureau’s “pulse” surveys, 70% of households that received free food during April said the free meals came from schools or other locations targeting children.

“The analysis shows that the child nutrition program infrastructure can be rapidly mobilized to meet children’s needs during unforeseen crises,” concluded the economists.

In April, the USDA said the school food waivers, including free meals for all students, would remain in force through June 30, 2022. Congress has not updated child nutrition regulations in a decade. The pandemic gave momentum to a drive for universal free school meals. The school lunch program was created after World War II to improve public health. In its early years, eight of every 10 participants paid full price for meals. Now, three-quarters of the meals are served for free or at reduced-price to pupils from low-income families.

Not considered in the working paper were the effects of SNAP, with an enrollment increase of 6 million people during spring 2020, or the Pandemic EBT program, which sent money to low-income households to offset the loss of school meals for their children.

“The introduction of P-EBT, along with increases in SNAP participation and benefits, translated into $19.6 billion in benefits being redeemed for groceries from March through May 2020, about $6.2 billion greater than the amount redeemed over the same period from the previous year,” said the USDA. Food pantries also may have helped.

School lunch is the largest of USDA’s child nutrition programs, serving roughly 30 million students daily and a total of 4.9 billion meals annually. School breakfast serves roughly 2.45 billion meals a year and the day care food program serves a little more than 2 billion meals annually. Summer food usually serves 140 million or so meals.

To read the USDA working paper, click here.

USDA data on child nutrition programs are available here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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