The Importance of School Food Even When School Is Cancelled

April 03, 2020

By Sara Porter, Vice President of External Affairs

Millions of students rely on schools for healthy school food every day, and this pandemic has revealed just how important this safety net is. Providing healthy food to students is a critical and essential service.

Nationwide, more than 30 million students participate in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) every day, which covers 95 percent of schools. NLSP is the second largest food and nutrition assistance program in the United States, second only to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Access to healthy food in schools is especially important for students from underinvested communities, the majority of whom are students of color, where healthy foods may not be widely available or prohibitively expensive. Nearly 22 million children from low-income families ate lunch at school on an average day during the 2017-2018 school year. Providing continuity for these students during a time of crisis is incredibly important.

NSLP doesn’t just provide lunch; it also provides breakfast and snacks. During the 2018-2019 school year, more than 14.6 million children—including 12.4 million low-income students—ate breakfast in schools, according to the annual School Breakfast Scorecard from the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC).

Among the many recommendations made by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is that schools continue meal programs in the wake of school closures. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has granted waivers to all 50 states, Puerto Rico and Washington D.C., so that schools can run feeding programs, like they do in the summer, to provide free meals to students. The USDA also eliminated the requirement that meals be served in a group setting, and many districts are using creative methods like grab-and-go meal pick ups, school bus meal delivery, and other pop-up food systems to ensure that students do not go hungry during this time.

We applaud schools and districts that are finding ways to ensure their students have access to healthy school food. Chicago Public Schools (CPS), for example, is providing free schools meals to all children. Each child will receive a bag that contains three days of breakfast and lunch. On the first day, CPS handed out 25,000 bags containing six meals each—a result that demonstrates just how needed this service is. New York City is notable in that it is expanding its school meal program at this time to also serve adults. FRAC is tracking how districts are continuing to serve school meals to their students and how parents can access that food.

This crisis underlines what we’ve always known: healthy school food is a critical part of what schools provide their students. We also recognize that school closures have revealed for many people the critical ways in which schools provide for the health and wellbeing of their students.

At the same time that school districts across the country are responding to the needs of their students, the federal government is still trying to lower nutrition standards for school food and make it more likely that schools will serve less healthy food for students in the future. We have been an active voice in opposition of this proposed rule and will continue to stand up for healthy school food to ensure this critical service is not weakened. The public comment period on this proposed rule is open until April 22. I urge you to raise your voice and tell the government that all students deserve healthy food in schools!