To Make School Meals Accessible, It’s Time to Think Universal

October 20, 2020

By Rochelle Davis

Among the many challenges schools have faced due to the pandemic, feeding students remains one of the most complicated.

On the school side, food service and nutrition directors are trying to distribute nutritious meals and balance budgets at a time when costs are up and reimbursement rates are down. For families, school closures have raised questions about eligibility and access to healthy meals.

In a move intended to address some of the uncertainty, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently extended school food waivers through the end of June 2021, allowing greater flexibility on where school districts can provide meals and to whom.

Healthy Schools Campaign applauds the extension — but only as the first step toward a more sustainable and equitable food distribution system.

It’s critical that Congress begins preparing for the 2021-2022 school year by passing a bill that supports universal school meals so we don’t find ourselves in this crisis again. The country needs a new approach to issues of food insecurity, not a narrow, cumbersome focus on eligibility.

Under a universal school meals program, families that are skirting the edge of financial eligibility during COVID, or are avoiding applying because of lack of information or other barriers, won’t need to worry about eligibility. At the other end, schools won’t need to worry about verifying family income or spending time billing and collecting money from families who pay a reduced price for school meals. It would also give flexibility to school nutrition programs so that children could continue to receive food when they are not at school.

Finally, it would remove the stigma applied to students taking part in free or reduced-price programs. Because when everyone participates, no one is left out.

In September, Audrey Rowe, an HSC board member and former USDA Food and Nutrition Service administrator, and I wrote a letter published in the Washington Post explaining why extending the waivers merely buys time, not a solution. (At that point, Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue had just announced an extension only through Dec. 31.)

The additional six months is an improvement, but the difficulties families face now, including increased economic hardship, hunger and food insecurity, aren’t going to be solved by next summer.

For more than 70 years, the National School Lunch Program has served the important role of providing school meals. As of 2019, 30 million children participated in the program, with 22 million qualifying for free or reduced-price meals. The USDA waivers, initially implemented in March, made it easier to get meals to children whose families faced job losses and food insecurity, regardless of whether they met official eligibility requirements. They include:

  • Allow Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and National School Lunch Program Seamless Summer Option (SSO) meals to be served in all areas and at no cost, meaning anyone 18 and under in any school district can get a free meal;
  • Permit meals to be served outside of the typically required group settings and meal times;
  • Waive meal pattern requirements, as necessary;
  • Allow parents and guardians to pick up meals for their children.

These waivers allowed school districts to offer grab-and-go meals in central locations, while in rural areas, school bus drivers, sidelined from transporting students, delivered food to students’ homes.

Reverting back to the previous system during a national health and economic crisis will cause confusion for school officials and for families, many of whom may be trying to navigate this security net for the first time. Already, only a small number of children have been receiving the meals for which they are eligible, and food service administrators are reporting a drop-off in the number of meals distributed this fall, possibly due to the complexities of picking up food when more parents have returned to work or are overseeing online learning.

When the waivers expire, school staff will have to refocus their efforts on processing and adjudicating school meal applications. The administrative burdens and reimbursement questions — and the struggle to come up with sufficient funds to continue to serve meals to students in need whose families don’t technically qualify or didn’t fill out the paperwork — will cause disruptions to food distribution.

We already saw some of this when the waivers were set to expire in August. Once again, the nation’s most vulnerable children will suffer.

At HSC, we are committed to advocating for universal school meals, which builds on our policy work on school food at the local, state and national level. We have also issued a set of recommendations for the next presidential administration that includes specific actions to improve access to healthy food and improve nutritional standards.

Partisan politics and inaction are having a real effect on students and families. We’ve all seen the long food lines. We all know that children need nourishment to focus on their lessons and to improve their overall health and immunity. There’s no excuse for not taking action that can vastly improve student health and reduce hunger.

HSC will be covering this issue more in the coming year. We invite you to follow along and learn more from other groups engaged in providing access to healthy school food.


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