By Sarah Ritter, Manger of Public Policy
The COVID-19 pandemic changed everyone’s plans last spring. Suddenly, parents had to figure out how to work from home, children had to adjust to remote learning and families had to cope with cancelled gatherings and events. Unfortunately, the pandemic also exacerbated economic hardship and increased food insecurity for many families in Missouri. According to Feeding America, 1 in 4 Missouri children are now experiencing food insecurity, a leap from 1 in 7 reported prior to COVID-19.
School closures left children without access to school breakfast and lunch. In 2019, half of Missouri students qualified for free or reduced-price school meals. Loss of access to school meals put these children and their families at an even higher risk for food insecurity during an already uncertain and unstable time. From March to May 2020, an estimated 17.9 million free and reduced-price school meals (breakfast and lunch) were missed in Missouri due to school closures.
At the same time, food prices increased dramatically during the pandemic, further straining families’ food budgets. Strong child nutrition programs have never been more important. The COVID-19 pandemic forced longstanding federal nutrition programs to discover new and innovative ways of operating. As the world changed and families adapted, so too did child nutrition policy.
CHILD NUTRITION POLICY CHANGES IN RESPONSE TO COVID-19
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (H.R. 6201) in March 2020. The bill granted the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) additional authority to approve key waivers and flexibilities for nutrition programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and child nutrition programs. The bill also authorized a new child nutrition program called Pandemic EBT (P-EBT). With the passage of this bill, states, schools and community organizations like Operation Food Search were able to more safely deliver food to children while schools were closed due to the pandemic.
The Summer Food Service Program (SFPS) and the Seamless Summer Option (SSO), known colloquially as Summer Meals, are two critical programs that ensure all kids have access to nutrition during the summer months. In 2020, schools and community organizations had to quickly transition to SFSP and SSO in March when schools closed due to COVID-19. Programs that typically begin in June were now beginning operations three months early.
In order to adhere to social distancing practices, Summer Meal program operations had to shift. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act authorized the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) the ability to grant nationwide waivers of certain program requirements. The waivers included allowing multiple meals to be served at one time, allowing meals to be consumed off-site and served through grab-and-go and drive thru styles or along bus routes, relaxing the requirements for area eligibility in order to open more meal sites, and permitting meals to be picked up by a parent or guardian without a child present. The USDA also granted waivers to ease program reporting and onsite monitoring requirements, which allowed much needed flexibility for Summer Meal sponsors across Missouri. These child nutrition waivers provided families with more options to access meals while ensuring their safety and the safety of program staff.
While school nutrition staff across the nation were quick to develop innovative strategies, it’s likely many children and their families still experienced interruptions in their daily nutritional intake. A research study of Maryland’s child meal program found that approximately 1.5 million meals were missed each week during school closures compared the total number of meals typically served during the school week.
To further close the nutrition gap for children who lost access to school meals last spring, Congress also authorized a new program through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act: Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer or P-EBT. The P-EBT program provided Missouri families with children who are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals with a reimbursement for the meals children missed while schools were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Eligible families were provided an EBT card to use to purchase groceries. In Missouri, families were provided a maximum of $302 per eligible child (pre-K to 12th grade).
During the brief time P-EBT has been in existence, the program has been found to reduce food insecurity for eligible families. According to research conducted by The Hamilton Project, the amount of children not getting enough food declined by more than 30% the week after benefits were allocated. Not only was P-EBT found to decrease food insecurity for children, it also reduced the likelihood that household members sometimes or often did not have enough to eat.
TACKLING CHILD NUTRITION IN THE 2020-2021 SCHOOL YEAR & BEYOND
The 2020-2021 school year didn’t begin like a regular school year. Schools continued to adapt and develop new strategies for ensuring students had the resources they needed to learn during the pandemic. For some schools this meant smaller classrooms with masks and desks spaced six feet apart. For others it meant a continuation of remote learning or launching a hybrid model for students to learn both in-person and remotely. No matter the situation, schools and families all had to contend with one thing: how to ensure their students had access to the nutrition they need to learn and grow.
Luckily, the USDA extended the child nutrition program flexibilities beyond the summer months through the 2020-2021 school year. Additionally, due to the success of the program and the ongoing pandemic, Congress also reauthorized and expanded P-EBT through the Continuing Appropriation (H.R. 8337) passed in September 2020. These measures will help alleviate the effects of economic hardship and food insecurity for thousands of families in Missouri.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, strong child nutrition programs and policies will be the bedrock of economic recovery for families across the United States. If there’s one lesson we’ve learned, it’s that child nutrition policies can adapt and innovate to better meet the needs of children and families. Hopefully, these policy changes can be extended beyond the COVID-19 emergency.
Originally published by Operation Food Search: Source