Summer—ideally, it is filled with kids playing outside, heading to camp, and enjoying some freedom from school-year routines. This year, though, no one—including our kids—will have an ordinary summer. As we’ve watched COVID-19’s effects shift our day-to-day routines, the abrupt changes to the school year were among the first signs that life would not return to normal anytime soon. As parents worried about the effect of school closures on their children’s education, many also worried about how these changes would impact their children’s access to food.
Thankfully, they were not alone in their worries. Beginning with the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, Congress quickly approved emergency support for child nutrition programs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) and the States immediately acted to help local meal providers serve meals to children outside school walls. School food authorities and other organizations reacted to the unexpected changes with ingenuity and creativity. Stories abounded of myriad new approaches to feeding children, from distributing meals along bus routes to setting up drive-throughs and curbside pick-up and dropping off meals at children’s homes. To help families find meals, school districts shared information and FNS regularly updated its nationwide meal site finder.
The need for meals is everywhere, and it is not diminishing as summer begins
The reason for the quick action: in February alone, almost 30 million children ate school lunches in about 94,000 schools across the country. The school meal programs, including the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program, serve all children, regardless of socioeconomic or immigration status or enrollment in a public or private school. For the children served each day who come from families with lower incomes, the meals fill a significant nutritional need. Although many local providers have made herculean efforts to serve children during school closures, anecdotes from across the country suggest they have not come close to reaching the number of children typically served in school buildings.
As summer begins, families are facing the persistent economic effects of COVID-19, with unemployment rates reaching historic levels. At the same time that many find themselves unexpectedly out of work, grocery store prices for food are rising at rates not seen in years. Early data revealing that food insecurity is increasing among households with children should come as no surprise.
Although the federal government has long supported summer meal programs, in a typical summer, the Summer Food Service Program and the National School Lunch Program’s Seamless Summer Option struggle to reach anywhere near the number of children who benefit from school meals during the school year. Last summer, these programs served about 170 million meals, whereas in February 2020 alone, the school meal programs served over 730 million meals.
Some of the challenges of providing summer meals are likely to be exacerbated this year
A few years ago, when I was an assistant director at the U.S. Government Accountability Office, my team and I reviewed the summer meal programs and found that States and local providers across the country faced a variety of challenges reaching children through these programs. These challenges included, for example, trying to set up meal sites in locations easily accessed by families, particularly in rural areas, and providing meals to needy children in neighborhoods where the majority of families do not have low incomes. We also heard from States and local providers about financial challenges associated with administering these programs, including the higher cost of providing meals to children who are not at a central location each day, as they are during the school year.
This year, the challenges summer meal providers face are likely to be exacerbated. School food authorities—which often play a significant role in providing summer meals—are coming off several months of financial disruption, potentially placing their ability to continue providing meals at risk. Organizations that provide meals as part of summer camps or at libraries or other locations where children gather in the summer may face restrictions or barriers to providing meals because of changes in operations and safety measures related to COVID-19.
The child nutrition program changes that the Congress allowed under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act should help with some of these challenges, as should FNS’s recent actions to allow the changes to continue through the summer. However, the approved changes do not address the full range of issues faced by summer meal providers, including those related to funding. In addition, Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT), an important program Congress approved to allow low-income families with children to buy food at grocery stores to replace school meals, is authorized only through the end of the school year.
Supporting child nutrition in the next relief package
Although child nutrition is just one of many serious policy issues competing for the attention of Congress, there are reasons to hope that Congress will take more steps to ensure children are fed this summer. Feeding children should not be a partisan issue, and members of both parties have voiced support for continued flexibilities and financial assistance for child nutrition programs.
If and when Congress takes up another COVID-19 relief package, it should underscore the importance of supporting child nutrition in all months of the year. Both enabling Pandemic EBT food assistance benefits to continue—at least in some form—into the summer months, and helping local meal providers who face financial constraints because of the disruption of the pandemic, would significantly alleviate barriers to feeding children this summer.
Children might have been spared the most significant negative health effects of the virus, but access to an adequate and healthy diet will play a key role in ensuring their long-term health doesn’t suffer. We know that many children have not received daily school meals for months now—meals that, for many of them, filled a significant nutritional need. As we head into a summer filled with uncertainty, I am hopeful that federal policymakers will support legislative changes that enable meal providers to continue to serve children in need.