As the nation is heading Back-to-School in a global pandemic, COVID-19 continues to disrupt life as we know it. Specifically, expanded unemployment benefits expired for many Americans on July 31st. Along with economic insecurity comes food insecurity. More and more Americans are hungry as food banks and school systems try to meet the demands of this growing threat. In April 2020, 41% of women with children under 13 reported that they did not have enough food to feed their children. In June 2020, the Brookings Institute reported that about 14 million children are not getting enough to eat.
Eat REAL provides certification to school lunch programs to increase healthy, sustainable food options for K-12 children. During COVID-19, the organization quickly pivoted to support food donations and PPE for school food service professionals. Through the crisis, Eat REAL expanded its network from 237 to 2067 schools.
In August 2020, we surveyed school food service provider participants in Eat REAL’s food certification program and from schools who received protective gear donations from Eat REAL. We wanted to know what the top concerns were for the people on the front lines providing essential nutrition for families in need.
Given the hectic back to school period, the survey response rate of 28% (22 respondents from 80 queried) is a solid indicator of key concerns of school foodservice professionals. We surveyed a network of 493 schools from 22 school districts that represent more than 300,000 students. We asked 8 questions about the upcoming school year and asked participants to rank the issues in order of concern, as well as share their perspectives on other key topics.
100% of respondents agree Universal School Breakfast and Lunch is key to fighting food insecurity in their communities.
- A respondent noted that “We need universal free meals/pandemic feeding so we can ensure food access to ALL children 0-18.”
- On August 31, 2020, the USDA announced that it would extend the universal meal waiver program until December 31, 2020. Without this waiver, essential school food meal programs face dire budget deficits. If the program is not routinely extended, dramatic cuts to these essential programs will devastate schools’ abilities to adequately provide core meals – and some meal programs may even close. This step by the USDA is a welcome one, but Eat REAL urges the Administration and Congress to provide universal meals to all.
- Virginia’s Bobby Scott, (D-Va) of the House Education and Labor Committee introduced the Pandemic Child Hunger Prevention Act, which would support free meals for all starting this school year to help protect the next generation. We need universal meals for all. In August 2020, Eat REAL published an op-ed in Fast Company on how investing in universal school meals can help fight against hunger and systemic racism.
96% of school districts surveyed say food insecurity is increasing.
- Report after report shows that the converging crises of 2020 result in heightened hunger and food insecurity, which is reflected in this survey. The respondents who did not agree that food security was increasing were from schools with already high levels of food insecurity.
- The growing issue of hunger is a threat to children’s educational experience because hungry children have a hard time focusing in school, staying in school, and meeting educational milestones.
81% of school leaders are “Very Concerned” that COVID-19 has restricted access to necessary school meals, which may translate into less funding for these critical nutrition programs.
- Even as food insecurity increases, remote schooling means fewer at risk students are receiving necessary school meals, which puts these programs at risk in the long-term. Food service professionals are concerned about their budgets to continue to cover staff, food and operational costs.
More than two -thirds (67%) of school leaders are “Very Concerned” about staff health and safety during COVID-19.
- Food service professionals provide a range of food programs from food delivery to at school pick up. Some school district professionals are worried that they may not have the necessary PPE (personal protective equipment) to minimize exposure to food service workers.
Back-to-school time always results in uncertainty and stress, but the 2020-21 school year reflects a fundamental shift in the challenges parents and children face. With remote learning and ongoing economic issues, more kids are hungry in America. Our foodservice professionals, who serve children and families five days a week, know how important their work is in the healing of our nation. Listening to their top concerns and lifting up these important workers can help us build a strong foundation for the next generation.
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