Children across the US are going hungry during the COVID-19 pandemic because they’re missing out on school meals, according to a NPR report published Monday.
Only 15% of children from low-income families in the US who qualify for free or reduced-price school meals are receiving them, Lauren Bauer, a researcher at the Brookings Institution, told the media organization.
Participation in government benefit programs and healthy school lunches is known to improve students’ academic performance and their short- and long-term health. More than 30 million children in the country rely on free or reduced-price meals at school, but several districts are struggling to get meals into students’ hands.
"Every day I worry about them. Every day," Alyssia Wright, executive director of Fulton County Schools' nutrition program in Fulton County, Georgia, told NPR.
Arizona’s Tucson Unified School District, where 70% of families qualify for free or reduced-price meals, went from serving nearly 35,000 meals a day to cutting down by 90%.
Meanwhile in Charlotte, North Carolina, school meals were down by 89% this year, a representative for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction told NPR.
A third of US families are currently experiencing food insecurity, and 1 in 5 say their children don’t have sufficient food, and families don’t have the funds to buy more, according to Bauer.
When the School Nutrition Association surveyed school nutrition directors representing nearly 2,000 districts during the COVID-19 pandemic, 80% said they were serving fewer meals than when schools were open. A majority of districts said the number of meals dropped by 50% or more.
Schools in Fulton County, Georgia, are one example of this phenomenon. Districts went from serving 50,000 to 60,000 meals per day to 70,000 per week, according to Wright.
Most children in many districts aren’t getting school meals because they can’t pick them up. Some districts report that the pandemic is draining meal-service budgets and could soon resort to laying off and letting go of staff.
When schools first closed in March due to the pandemic, picking up meals was much easier. Most districts implemented their summer meal distribution model in the areas with the biggest need and allowed parents to pick up meals from a few local schools. The US Department of Agriculture worked with districts to ensure any child could receive a meal, regardless of where they attend school and will continue to do so until the end of the year.
That model worked when parents weren’t going to work, but now that more are back in the office, it’s less convenient. Some parents also don’t have the transportation to get to the school or don’t want to make the trip altogether during the pandemic.
"[SNA] surveyed school nutrition directors representing nearly 2,000 districts, 80% said they were serving fewer meals than they had been when school was in session. Of those, a majority of districts said the number of meals had dropped by 50% or more." https://t.co/hOBfU9KS7kpic.twitter.com/Aud8XTfPfY— SchoolLunch (@SchoolLunch) September 8, 2020
School nutrition directors are finding innovative ways to deliver meals to children to ensure they don’t go hungry. Tucson Unified School District food services director Lindsay Aguilar is distributing to-go meals to 67 school bus stops daily. In Fulton County, Wright is delivering a week’s worth of food at a time to families at school bus stops.
Districts that rely on students who can afford meals and snacks, however, lack the budget to continue delivering meals.
Congress launched an effort to give parents and caregivers cash directly to buy groceries, which kept 2.5 to 3.5 million children out of hunger this summer, according to Bauer. The program has expired in most states and has yet to be renewed, leaving millions of children at risk.