August 12, 2021
By Emma Rotner, Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership Certificate student
When schools closed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, many students across the country lost the reliable meal sources that they would typically receive at school or through other child-care programs. Each day, millions of children rely on the National School Breakfast and School Lunch programs for their meals and main source of nutrition for the day. These school closures increased food insecurity and childhood hunger during an already economically unstable time. It is estimated that 14% of families in the U.S are experiencing food insecurity during the pandemic or as a result of the pandemic (FNS, 2020). This includes approximately 13 million children. To address the growing economic instability and food insecurity, the Trump administration passed the CARES Act and the Biden administration implemented the American Rescue Plan (ARP). Both plans Included a large number of waivers that would allow school districts to serve food in different and unique ways (FNS, 2020).
The waivers put in place by both the CARES Act and the ARP allowed school districts to serve meals even while schools were closed, something that had not previously been allowed, and eased the requirements for a reimbursable meal. Through a waiver, parents and guardians were permitted to pick up school meals at designated sites to bring home to their children, even if their children were not with them at the time of pick up. School food service departments were allowed to serve multiple meals at one time, creating less of a burden on families who were coming to pick up meals. In fact, schools were even allowed to provide home delivery of meals if needed. During the Summer Food Service Program, school-provided meals are only allowed to be served in areas where 50% or more of the student population qualifies for free or reduced-priced lunch. Under the ARP, a waiver was issued that authorized school districts to serve both school meals and summer meals in all areas, regardless of the free and reduced percentage (FNS, 2021).
The pandemic caused many food and supply shortages, so a waiver was put in place that allowed schools to not adhere to the meal pattern and nutritional requirements that are typically in place. Although this waiver helped school districts to put together meals for students and work around supply shortages, in some cases this waiver led to a decrease in nutritional quality in the meals that some students were provided. This was particularly challenging for children who rely on school meals for the majority of their nutritional requirements. Faculty members from the Harvard Chan School of Public Health found that food insecurity amongst children doubled during the pandemic, increasing from 14% to 28% of children experiencing food insecurity, with communities of color being impacted the most Bleich et al, 2020). There is no denying though that this waiver, as well as the others that were instated, allowed school districts to adapt to the unprecedented times and ensured that students around the country were still provided with the school meals that they rely on for food security.
In addition to modifying the school meal requirements, the ARP also extended and increased access to Pandemic EBT, a program that was developed to provide SNAP participants who have children with additional benefits to compensate them for the lack of meals that students received in schools or through child-care programs over the course of the pandemic (FNS, 2020).
The CARES act also sought to bridge the gap between the growing number of food insecure individuals and the surplus of crops that farmers were experiencing as a result of the pandemic. During the pandemic, supply chains were severely disrupted and as a result, many farmers were left with a surplus of product and crops as a result. Early pandemic images showed farmers plowing over their crops and dumping out large quantities of product, a stark juxtaposition to the rising rates of food insecurity and the growing lines and reliance on food pantries and food assistance programs.
As a result, the CARES act, passed in April 2020 sought to mitigate the surplus of food and the high rates of food insecurity by creating a program known as Farmers to Families Food Boxes. The premise of the program was that the USDA reimbursed farmers for their surplus crops and partnered with distributors to create food boxes for families. Many school food service departments became involved and were able to procure and then source the food boxes to families and members of their community. The school district that I work in in Connecticut hosted two days where they distributed the Farmers to Families Food Boxes. Both times, hundreds of families came through to pick up food boxes for their families. Many people were extremely grateful or emotional, sharing how much they needed the food box and how it was going to help ease some of their stress around feeding their family for that week. Although this program tended to benefit larger agriculture operations versus small and mid-sized farms, it was impactful in assisting families in need and distributing surplus crops (Broad Leib, et al. 2020).
These programs put in place by the CARES Act and ARP certainly helped to alleviate some of the food insecurity caused by the pandemic. However, many children did not receive the same quantity of quality of food during the pandemic as a result of school and childcare closures. The pandemic highlighted how much of a need there is in communities and how important and valuable these social programs are to assisting families.
Annie E. Casey Foundation . (2020). Kids, Families and COVID-19. The Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Bleich, S., Cohen, J., Sommers, B., & Allen, J. (2020, October 28). Why partisan politics keeps 14 million hungry children from getting the food they need. USA Today. https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2020/10/28/how-politics-keeps-14-million-american-kids-getting-enough-food-column/6051427002/.
Broad Leib , E. M., Adura, A., Beckmann, J., & King , W. (2021, February). An Evaluation of the Farmers to Families Food Box Program . National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. Food Law and Policy School at Harvard Law. https://sustainableagriculture.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/F2F-Food-Box-Report-Online-Final3.pdf.
USDA Food and Nutrition Services. (2020). FNS Responds to COVID-19. USDA. https://www.fns.usda.gov/coronavirus.
USDA. (n.d.). School Meals. USDA: Coronavirus Disease (Covid-19). https://www.usda.gov/coronavirus/school-meals
Image source: https://www.aacps.org/mealpickup