Nearly a year into the pandemic, school closures have taken a harsh toll on American kids. Virtual classes have left many behind academically, and losing access to school meals has increased child hunger across the country, as replacement programs have failed to meet rising need. Experts warn that, as interruptions to traditional schooling continue, racial and socioeconomic gaps in performance will only widen.
As children return to the classroom — both in districts where in-person school has already resumed, and with an eye toward the post-pandemic world — school breakfasts will be critical in both curbing hunger and improving academic outcomes, according to the Food Research & Action Center’s (FRAC) annual Breakfast Scorecard, which was released today. But the scorecard, which ranks states’ participation in the program, reveals that many states are failing to reach eligible kids — losing out on federal funding and an opportunity to reduce hardship in low-income districts.
Under FRAC’s benchmark, for every 100 low-income kids eating reduced-price or free school lunch, 70 should also be eating breakfast. Only two states — West Virginia and Vermont — met that goal in the 2019-20 school year; seven others — Utah, Hawaii, Iowa, Nebraska, New Hampshire, South Dakota and Washington — failed to reach even half of students participating in the school lunch program. In the report, FRAC calls its benchmark “challenging but attainable.”
In the 48 states and the District of Columbia that failed to meet FRAC’s goal, more than 2.5 million kids missed out on school breakfasts.
According to the scorecard, for every 100 low-income kids who participated in school lunch programs on an average school day between September and February of the 2019–2020 school year, only around 58 also ate breakfast. Although that represents a 1.5-percent increase from the previous school year, advocates say that the pandemic’s impact on childhood hunger demands an even greater boost in participation. Survey data from January indicate that nearly one in six households with children are not getting enough to eat. The hunger crisis — like the pandemic generally — continues to disproportionately affect Black, Latino, Indigenous and immigrant families.
“Covid-19 has caused alarming spikes in childhood hunger all across the country,” said Luis Guardia, president at FRAC. “As students return to the classroom, school breakfast will provide a critical source for children to get the nutrition they need for their health and learning.”
Low participation in the School Breakfast Program doesn’t only hurt kids. States, which receive federal funds for each breakfast served, miss out on assistance that, given the pandemic’s economic impact, they need more than ever. In total, FRAC’s research shows that more than $495 million was left untapped between September 2019 and February 2020; California, Florida, New York and Texas collectively missed out on more than $194 million.
States that managed to increase participation were those with “breakfast after the bell” models. This approach doesn’t restrict breakfast to the cafeteria or to the time before classes start, allowing students to eat in the classroom, use a grab-and-go system, or “second chance breakfast,” in which kids who are running late or simply not hungry in the morning have the option to eat after homeroom or first period.
“We urge more states to promote this approach, along with offering free lunch to all students to ensure that students are not hungry at school and are ready to learn,” said Guardia.
Community eligibility — which allows the nation’s highest-poverty schools and districts to serve breakfast and lunch at no cost to all enrolled students — also improved participation. Because the pandemic has increased the number of families participating in SNAP, more schools will qualify for community eligibility in the 2021-22 school year. The shift comes amid advocates’ growing calls for legislation to create a universal school meals program, drawing on the success of pandemic-related waivers that expanded meal access to all children.
“We want Congress to authorize universal school meals all the way through 2022,” said Katie Wilson, executive director of the Urban School Food Alliance. “It will help nutrition programs recover, and help families recover.”