The pandemic increased hunger, but fewer kids are getting school meals

Despite a spike in food insecurity during the Covid-19 pandemic, school meals have “lost important ground” over the last two years, according to a new report from the Food Research & Action Center. The number of students regularly eating school lunches was 30.7 percent lower in the 2020-21 school year than in 2018-19, before the pandemic hit, according to the report. Participation in the  school breakfast program, which has long been much lower than in school lunch,  fell by 4.7 percent over the same period.

These declines came even though more than 99 percent of school meals served during the 2020-21 school year were free, due to temporary rule changes designed to expand access and reduce administrative burdens. These waivers also made it easier for school nutrition programs to feed kids during the pandemic by allowing them to offer meals for pick-up and delivery and to distribute multiple days’ worth of meals at once.

But significant hurdles remain: at any given moment, schools are juggling hybrid schedules, remote learning and significant numbers of student absences due to illness or quarantine, along with staffing shortages, supply chain disruptions and tight budgets.

Moving forward, the report offered several recommendations on how feeding programs can recover their momentum. First, it urged Congress to extend the child nutrition waivers, which are currently set to expire in June of 2022.

The report also encouraged schools to adopt practices that address three factors that can affect school meal participation: timing, convenience and stigma. It recommended serving breakfast in classrooms, after school starts, to increase participation and ensuring that lunch periods are long enough for kids to make it through the lunch line and eat their meals.

And it recommended that free school meals be offered to all students regardless of income, permanently—an approach known as Healthy Meals for All. In 2021, California and Maine passed legislation making school meals free to all students. To take such a policy national, Congress could pass legislation such as the Universal School Meals Program Act of 2021, the report said. Barring such sweeping action, the federal government could also make more modest steps toward expanding access, such as directly certifying more low-income kids for free meals, instead of requiring their parents to apply for the program. It also recommended eliminating reduced-price meals and instead giving free meals to all children from families making up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level.