The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated hunger and food insecurity across the country and shined a spotlight on the inequalities in our food system – it also expanded awareness around the power of our existing child feeding programs. With the help of USDA waivers, schools expanded their services to provide free meals to all students. Many schools teamed up with local food banks, pantries, and local farms to offer meal boxes for families in addition to children’s meals. These school foodservice programs have fed more meals than food banks in most communities.
With schools letting out for the summer break, we’re faced with the threat of summertime hunger. The nonprofit No Kid Hungry estimates that standard summer meal programs only reach 16% of children who need food assistance while school is out. Luckily, USDA has announced the most extensive summer feeding program in US history. Existing summer food programs, like the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and Seamless Summer Option (SSO), are expanded to be available for all school-aged children at no cost. Additional support will provide families of 34 million low-income children with direct payments to help cover food costs. Kids under six who qualify for SNAP benefits and all kids who receive free or reduced-price school lunch qualify and will be enrolled automatically.
While these are essential next steps in combating hunger and food insecurity, there is still much work to be done. USDA has extended waivers to allow for free meals for all children through the 2021-2022 school year, and these extensions should be made permanent. Legislation, known as the Stop Child Hunger Act, has been introduced to make the new summer feeding program permanent during all school breaks. States like California have introduced their own legislation, and have built these programs into the state budget to make free school meals permanent for all students.
Children need access to real foods year-round to protect their health and facilitate learning and the path to financial empowerment. Studies have found that free school meals lead to more successful students with fewer disciplinary problems. By supporting school foodservice programs so they can acquire more funding, advocating for policies that support universal free meals for all children beyond the pandemic, and helping schools source real foods that are good for kids’ health and the environment, we can create a more equitable food system that provides real food access to the communities that need it most.
Our schools have the potential to become the critical drivers in ending childhood hunger and malnutrition. Eat REAL is dedicated to empowering this change by supporting schools in their efforts to provide all children with healthful and sustainable food options. We are on track to help connect 225,000 more students with real food at school this year. Donate today to help us transform our food system.