Study: Participation in afterschool nutrition programs was rising before pandemic

Even before the pandemic, participation in afterschool nutrition programs was on the rise, according to a report released today from the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC). The findings highlight the need to ensure meal access when kids aren’t in school, particularly as the pandemic drags on.

Over 1.4 million children had access to suppers and snacks through the programs on an average day in October 2019, according to the report. That’s an increase of more than 86,900 participants from the previous year.

Even with the jump in participation, the report found gaps in the programs, which fell short of meeting childhood nutrition needs. Amid persistent food insecurity among American families with children, advocates say that further investment in the programs, along with structural changes, would help expand their reach this school year and in the future.

“With children losing access to meals that support their health and well-being due to closures and millions of families having to choose between paying bills and putting food on the table, afterschool suppers offer an important opportunity to provide children with the nutrition they need to offset this hunger and economic crisis,” Luis Guardia, one of the report’s authors, said in a press release.

Afterschool nutrition programs, which began nationwide in 2010, are run through the Child and Adult Care Food Program, which allows schools, local government agencies, and nonprofits to offer meals and snacks to eligible children after school hours, on weekends, and on school holidays. They also operate through the National School Lunch Program, enabling schools to provide kids with an after-school snack.

In March, the USDA issued a series of waivers and flexibilities to ensure families could safely participate in the programs, including allowing pickup meals and eliminating area-eligibility requirements to expand its reach. Normally, afterschool meals are only available in districts where more than 50 percent of children are eligible for free or reduced-cost school meals.

The USDA waivers, which will continue through the 2020-21 school year, have been essential during the pandemic. But making them permanent even once the pandemic is over would improve the programs’ reach in the long run, both increasing participation among families in need and bolstering federal funding for afterschool programs.

“There’s still significant room to increase participation in normal times, and during the pandemic,” Crystal FitzSimons, another author of the report, said in an interview.

Permanently eliminating the eligibility requirement, she said, is particularly important. “The eligibility requirement keeps a lot of rural and suburban areas left out. If there’s an area where 48 percent of kids qualify for reduced-price or free meals, then they’d be left out, but that still means that 48 percent of eligible children could benefit,” she said.

Even though participation has increased since the programs’ creation, only Washington, D.C., managed to reach FRAC’s target for the program, serving meals to at least 15 children for every 100 who qualify. States that fail to feed all eligible children miss out on federal funding. “More federal, state, and local investment in afterschool programs would go a long way in supporting access to afterschool meals,” FitzSimons said.

Six states — Texas, New York, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania — missed out on more than $5 in federal reimbursements in October 2019, and failed to reach a total of 630,720 eligible children, according to the report.

“The programs are reimbursed for meals served, and as an entitlement program sites can participate and draw down federal dollars,” said FitzSimons, stressing that the 15-child benchmark is fairly low. “There’s a decent amount of work to do, to increase access. It’s good news that participation has been growing, but we need to amplify that growth.”