All children and families, regardless of race, ethnicity, or where they live, deserve access to high-quality affordable foods. Unfortunately, when the COVID-19 pandemic started, families in poverty and on the edge of poverty were hit hardest by hunger. It was immediately clear to those working with the public that hunger, both for families in general and for children specifically, had to be addressed. Millions of children went home for spring break in 2020, were not allowed to return to school for the better part of a year, and mostly had to begin some form of distance learning. While it was part of an effort to keep children and families safe from COVID-19, this approach was particularly troubling for families who depended on school meals to help their children stay fed and healthy.
In 2019, 29.6 million children in the U.S. received free meals through the National School Lunch Program. That is 58% of all school-age children nationwide. Arkansans struggle with hunger at a rate higher than the national average: 65% of Arkansas’s children qualify for free and reduced meals. That is about 311,631 Arkansas students who depend on school meals to keep them fed.
In 2020, Congress granted authority to the U.S. Department of Agricultural (USDA) to issue nationwide nutrition waivers through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. These waivers loosened restrictions that otherwise would have made food access for kids nearly impossible and improved reimbursement to schools for meals provided.
Among other things, these waivers allowed schools to:
- Be more flexible in the meals they could provide
- Remove the requirement that children eat the meal on the premises of the school, allowing them to take meals with them
- Serve meals to kids outside the “normal” school hours to maximize the ability of families to pick up meals, allowing for evening and weekend meals
- Let parents/guardians to pick up meals for all children enrolled in public school
- Continue feeding children over the summer using the “Seamless Summer Option”
Those waivers have been renewed since 2020. But, they are set to expire on June 30, 2022, and Congress has not made provisions to renew the waivers. While some in Congress have stated that the waivers are no longer necessary as we return to “normal,” they clearly don’t understand the impact this decision will have. It is very likely to let children go hungry throughout the country, especially in poorer states like Arkansas.
The impact of ending these waivers and again restricting access to school nutrition programs in June will be particularly bad, as we know that more children become food insecure during the summer months. While a return to “normal” would be great, our kids and families are not there yet. Families do not have access to the same number of afterschool and summer programs as they did before the pandemic. Kids whose families depended on those programs for breakfast and lunch meals during the summer no longer have access to them. And the rising costs of meals due to supply chain issues mean that schools and summer programs may have to reduce the quality or quantity of food they serve.
These summer meals are essential to Arkansas’s families. Anyone who has gone to the grocery store recently can tell you about increases in food prices. With the waivers gone, families in poverty will struggle to feed their children the two meals per day they would have received through schools and summer programs. While two meals may not sound like much, research before the pandemic showed that family grocery costs rise more than $300 a month when school is out and meals are unavailable. Add to that the 3.5% increase in food costs in 2020, the 7.5% increase for 2021, and the early 2022 increase, and the cost of groceries for home consumption is now up by 7.9%.
We know from research that summer hunger has long-term consequences. Losing access to quality, reliable, nutritional foods during the summer months means that kids will experience more summer learning loss, meaning they forget what they learned during the year more easily than children who are not struggling with hunger. It also means they will start the next school year months behind those children who did not experience summer hunger. Kids who experience hunger often are more likely to experience long-term health consequences, like iron deficiency, anemia, asthma, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
In Arkansas, Pulse Survey data from the Census Bureau between December 29 and March 14 shows that an average of 17% of households with children reported facing food insecurity during the past seven days. That is more than 152,000 households with children on average. In addition, during that same period, an average of 40% of households with children received food assistance of some kind, including free meals from schools.
The Pulse Survey is intended to quickly collect data on the impact of the pandemic on people’s lives. Although the Pulse Survey gives us a view into the issue of food insecurity in Arkansas and the country, it must be noted that we do not have the full picture because there is a large nonresponse rate from week to week. An average of 141,000 households did not report during the same period above regarding food insecurity, and nearly 231,000 did not respond regarding food assistance. The problem of food insecurity in Arkansas is likely larger than we know.
We need to keep food for kids easily accessible during this summer and beyond until we can plan for a transition that addresses the actual problems families and kids are facing today. A bill in the House of Representatives – H.R. 6613 aims to do exactly that by addressing the issue of these waivers and granting authority to USDA through June 30, 2023, to:
- Issue a single waiver of child nutrition program requirements to all states under the National School Lunch Program for purposes of providing meals and snacks with appropriate safety measures concerning COVID-19;
- Grant waivers of requirements to allow non-congregate feeding in the Child and Adult Care Food Program for purposes of providing meals and snacks with appropriate safety measures concerning COVID-19; and
- Grant waivers related to the nutritional content of meals served in child nutrition programs if it determines the waiver is necessary to provide meals and snacks, and there is a food supply chain disruption due to COVID-19.
This resolution will essentially keep in place existing waivers and ensure that schools can continue to feed hungry kids. In addition, by extending the waivers through next June, we can assess the need for program flexibility during that time. We can reassess where we are in terms of child hunger and shape the policies to address our actual needs, instead of throwing hungry kids off a cliff this summer. All Arkansas kids deserve to have access to high-quality foods, and we need to make sure they still have access to it, not only this summer but for as long as they need.