No lunch money? No problem.
For the past two years, instead of students racking up lunch debt or having to skip eating a meal at school because they lack the cash to pay for it, all students were offered free lunch — year-round — through pandemic-era federal waivers. No questions asked.
More than just providing meals, the waivers also eased requirements for how kids could access them, making a tray of cafeteria food more accessible nationwide.
But, as the world eases its pandemic-related restrictions and mandates, Congress did not vote to extend the program, which will end on June 30.
On June 21, nine days before the deadline, a bipartisan group introduced the Keep Kids Fed Act, which would help school and summer programs provide food to kids if passed.
The issue is especially important for Black families, as a disproportionate number have not returned to pre-pandemic levels of food security, says Dr. Sara Abiola, the executive director of the Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food Education. While certain groups of the population have been able to regain their footing regarding food security, Black families already started at a disadvantage before the pandemic.
“Now, to the extent that we are post-pandemic, we’re still facing disproportionately high numbers of households with children that are not food secure, that have low food security,” Abiola says. “We’re going to see an exacerbation of that ongoing lack of recovery in that particular space.”
‘The Hungriest Time of the Year’
Summer is already the “hungriest time of the year,” Gonzales says, and many families rely on meal programs to get them through the school break. Higher food costs and employment challenges are already putting a strain on families, and now they’re losing a crucial resource that had been there for the last two years.
For some families, maybe two or four kids might have participated in these programs, allowing parents to keep a few more dollars in their pockets. And now those meals aren’t available.
“It’s going to be really difficult,” Gonzales says. “We’re seeing families who are struggling to put food on the table.”
We need to be focusing on solutions, like creating, supporting, and connecting families with community-based organizations, whether it’s food pantries or churches. Families are turning to emergency rooms and other medical institutions to deal with hunger, Abiola says.
“We don’t want folks going to places where they’re not going to get the assistance that they need,” Abiola says. “It’s certainly not going to be any type of long-term solution in that space.”
There have historically been challenges with national summer meal programs. The requirements in place create barriers — like transportation, restrictive times, weather, and eligibility rules — keeping hungry children from accessing the meals. The waiver program helped bypass some of these, like allowing families to pick up multiple meals at a time or have them delivered to their homes.
And, with the waivers in place the previous two summers, the number of free meals served in rural areas increased by 305% in 2020 compared to 2019, a No Kids Hungry analysis found.
In 2021, there were more than 67,000 sites for summer meals, according to USDA data. But No Kid Hungry predicts about 20% of those sites will no longer be eligible, leaving only 54,000 open sites nationwide.
“What we have seen is that these flexibilities improve access for kids, especially for kids of color,” Gonzales says. She hopes that the innovations, which are proven to be beneficial, continue. “We have to recognize that, for every community, we need to make sure that we’re doing and implementing strategies that best meet their needs.”
Without the waivers, this summer, about 7 million kids could lose access to meals, according to a microreport by No Kid Hungry. In July 2020, the first summer with the waivers, nearly triple the number of summer meals were given out compared to July 2019. And, even after things were reopened in July 2021, the number of free meals still doubled from 2019.
In a December 2021 survey, the Urban Institute found that roughly 70% of adults support permanent free school meals for all students. The sentiment was largely universal, regardless of whether the adult had children enrolled in school: 76% of respondents who live with kids in school strongly or somewhat supported this, compared to 67% of respondents who don’t live with school kids. Broken down to subgroups, 67% of Black respondents “strongly” supported making free meals permanent, compared to 68% of Hispanic respondents and 47% of white respondents.
Dr. Emily Gutierrez, a research associate at the Center on Education Data at the Urban Institute who worked on this survey, said the “widespread support” was surprising. But, ultimately, she says, “people want children to be able to be fed.”
The Intersection of the Pandemic and Food Insecurity
Families of color have been hit hardest by the pandemic, and they historically have higher rates of food insecurity.
Black families were the most likely to receive or use an electronic benefit transfer (EBT) to buy groceries, according to the Census Bureau’s most recent Household Pulse survey. The survey also found that Black families were the most likely to need free meals or food assistance.
The Household Pulse survey found that white (7%), Asian (6%), and Black (6%) children were all relatively similar when it came to picking up meals at a school or other sites, with Hispanic children being the outlier at 13%. However, this number doesn’t tell the whole story on the surface. Barriers — like transportation, schedules, and lack of information — have kept these resources from families who might need them.
Prior to the pandemic, about a third of schools offered universal free meals through the Community Eligibility Provision, Gutierrez says, meaning 49% of (or 3.3 million) Black students attended schools with the program. Plus, majority-Black schools are more likely to have universal free meals, meaning 69% of these schools offer the program. However, only 30% of minority Black schools have universal free meals.
When it comes to filling out paperwork for free or reduced lunches, there’s a lot to consider. For parents, they might not have the time, resources, or knowledge to fill out the forms, or maybe they don’t want to divulge the required sensitive information, like their income. Plus, there’s also a stigma for the kids, which was reduced during the waiver program, Gutierrez says.
“Black and Latino women, they’ve also been hit hard in terms of wages and employment, and communities of color have a higher impact when it comes to their ability to access food,” Gonzales says. “So when we talk about these waivers, it’s critically important that we make sure that all of the waivers are extended because this is what ensures families have the best access and equitable access to these programs.”
What the New School Year Could Look Like Without Waivers
Looking ahead at the coming school year, if nothing changes, “it could be a real crisis,” Gonzales says. Schools are facing staffing shortages, and with supply chain challenges, some delivery trucks aren’t showing up.
“This is not something that can be sustained over a long period of time,” Gonzales says. “These waivers are what have helped a lot of these operators overcome those hurdles.”
The waivers have shown that there’s an opportunity to do a “much better job” of feeding kids, Gonzales says. But the important thing to realize is that, without the waivers, it won’t be a “return to normal,” Abiola says. In fact, it’s going to be worse.
“There is now this understanding that the current patchwork of resources that are available to try to address food insecurity are not adequate,” Abiola says. “They’re just not sufficient.”
On top of that, there haven’t been any real tools put in place for families to address why they’re in positions facing food insecurity.
“That’s where we need to really step in and fill the gap with policies that are designed to not just improve the school food environment,” Abiola says, “but also to create systems and structures that will enhance opportunities, enhance the ability of families to support themselves in a way that allows them to secure the food that they need for themselves and for the rest of their household.”