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School Food in Crisis During the Pandemic

by Stephanie Armstrong and the SFUSA Food & Farm Policy Working Group

Keeping School Food Open When Schools are Closed

The USDA financially supports the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), the School Breakfast Program (SBP), and the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) that serve some 30,000,000 children in 100,000 schools.  Many of these children are from low-income homes and receive free and reduced priced meals.  For many of them, school food accounts for 50 percent of their daily caloric intake.  When schools are closed, keeping school food open is of paramount importance to ensure food-insecure children are fed.  The USDA is supporting schools in efforts to ensure that  school children have continued access to meals during COVID-19 driven closures of school systems around the country.

First, under a provision of the SFSP and the Seamless Summer Option (SSO), schools provide meals at no cost to students during the summer. The SFSP and the Seamless Summer Option provide the model for emergency food distribution to students of closed schools.  Under normal circumstances, those meals must be served in a group setting.  However, in a public health emergency, the law allows the group setting requirement to be waived. which is vital during this time of  social distancing.  For instance, New York City, with the largest school system in the nation commenced the distribution of Grab-and-Go breakfasts and lunches from 7:30 am to 1:30 pm at the entrance of selected school buildings.

Second, the Baylor University Collaboration on Hunger and Poverty, supported by the USDA and in concert with private sector entities, has commenced an initiative to address the historical distribution problem of the Summer Food Service Program in rural communities because of  low student population density and great distances between schools and other distribution sites. The initiative aims to start with distributing 1,000,000 meals packed in five-day food boxes. You can learn more here.

States, Districts, and Tribal Nations must apply to the USDA to undertake these distributions.  You can learn more here.

No Kid Hungry, the anti-child hunger program of not-for-profit Share Our Strength,  is offering real time funding and assistance for schools and community organizations that are making sure children have access to the meals they need as schools close due to COVID-19. No Kid Hungry is providing $1 million in emergency grants on a rolling basis  to support local efforts like home delivered meals, grab-and-go meals programs, school and community pantries, backpack programs, and other steps to help reach children and families who lose access to meals. You can learn more here.

School Food Nutrition, in Crisis Before and After COVID-19

Clearly, COVID-19, is an unprecedented, albeit short term, threat to the nutrition of millions of our school children, and, thankfully, it seems our elected officials are pulling together to confront and deal with the challenge.

After we get through COVID-19, unless we act now, school food nutrition will take hits because of a USDA proposed rule that would allow schools to roll back the nutritional gains in the meals they provide in line with the landmark legislation, The Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) of 2010.  

Before the COVID-19 crisis, the Trump Administration proposed a rule that would roll back the HHFKA nutrition standards for school meals. While the Administration claims that the proposed rule would provide for greater “flexibility” in schools’ meal preparation, it, in fact, would allow for more high-calorie meals and fewer healthy options.

Since the implementation of HHFKA standards, school meals significantly have improved the nutrition of school meals, with student participation in meal programs highest in schools that serve the healthiest meals. This has been documented in USDA’s School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study and other studies. These nutritional improvements have significant short and long-term benefits for student’s health and academic achievement.

Under the USDA’s proposal, schools could serve less fruit, fewer whole grains, fewer varieties of vegetables, and more starchy vegetables. In order to better understand the implications of the USDA’s proposal, Healthy Eating Research conducted a rapid Health Impact Assessment, reviewing over 60 studies on school meals published between 2012-2020.  They found

  • moderate evidence that there is an association between nutrition standards and improved diet quality with improved academic performance and cognitive function and
  • strong evidence that
  • nutrition standards improve the nutritional quality of school meals, increase student participation in school meal programs, and improve students’ diet quality,
  • participation in school meal programs decreased food insecurity in children, and
  • there is a direct relationship between educational attainment and health over a lifetime, with better educated individuals living longer and having lower risks for chronic diseases.

The USDA’s proposal would impact the most vulnerable children, including those from low-income households in predominantly African American, Latinx, Tribal, rural, and small schools.  Preserving the HHFKA nutrition standards is imperative. 

SFUSA is opposed to the proposed rollback and you can help get our message out by providing your comment to the USDA opposing the proposed rule (the “Simplifying Meal Service and Monitoring Requirements in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs” rule).  Take a few minutes to act now,  it’s easy and important to send your comment.  Just go to the Regulations.gov page.  You can use our suggested comment found here