Skip to content Skip to footer

Schools Are Struggling to Feed Hungry Students as Unemployment Rises

Even before the pandemic, family poverty forced over 22 million children to rely on free or reduced-fee school meals.

Bus driver Treva White and nutritionist Shaunté Fields deliver meals to children and their families on May 6, 2020, in Seattle, Washington.

Part of the Series

Anastasia Ali considers herself lucky. Each day, she walks eight blocks from her Brooklyn, New York, apartment to PS/IS 104 and is given a brown paper bag of food for herself and her two kids. “I work part-time as a home health aide, but I attend college full-time. I want to be a speech therapist so I study language pathology,” she told Truthout. “Before the virus, my kids ate in school. Now we’re all at home. The free breakfast and lunch I pick up lasts us the whole day. It really helps because my wages barely cover our rent, light and gas bills.”

Ali, a single mother who emigrated from Russia 10 years ago, is particularly grateful that she can get food with no questions asked and no ID required for both herself and her children. This is not true in much of the U.S. because adult meals are not reimbursed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the federal agency that oversees the school meals program. Instead, food that is provided to those over age 18 must be paid for through locally generated revenue.

Not surprisingly, this has caused a measurable uptick in hunger. According to The Hamilton Project of the Brookings Institute, nearly 20 percent of children age 12 and younger are not eating enough because their families cannot afford to feed them. Equally alarming, nearly 41 percent of mothers of elementary school-aged children said that they considered themselves “food insecure” as a result of the virus.

Part of the problem is that USDA regulations do not mandate that meals be provided to students when school is not in session — typically during summer months but also during health emergencies like the current pandemic — leaving some kids, particularly low-income children living in rural areas, desperate for sustenance.

Where food is offered, the variation in what is provided is enormous, with each district determining how much and how often meals will be distributed. In Lexington, Nebraska, for example, parents are told that, “One meal per student will be available on a first-come, first-served basis while supplies last.” Conversely, Chicago parents can pick up three days’ worth of food outside every public school in the city.

The upshot of increased child hunger is both predictable and dire, with good nutrition inextricably linked to good health and good academic achievement. What’s more, since 60 percent of school-aged kids ate some combination of breakfast, lunch and an afternoon snack at school before the pandemic, the magnitude of failing to provide nutritious food to the hungry is potentially catastrophic.

Even Brief Periods of Food Insecurity Can Have Lasting Effects

By all accounts, hunger can have a devastating impact on body and soul. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, “even brief periods of food insecurity can cause long-term developmental, psychological, physical and emotional harm,” with missed meals leading to fatigue, reduced immune response and difficulties concentrating.

But providing food is not simply a matter of packing grab-and-go bags, or dropping off food for distribution at designated locations. In fact, school districts wishing to offer even minimal food have had to deal with a slew of bureaucratic roadblocks, including eight different waiver forms that need to be completed before a program can hand out as much as an apple. Among them: a non-congregate feeding waiver so that food can be distributed curbside or from the school gym; a waiver to allow more than one meal to be dispensed at a time; a waiver to allow after-school snacks to be given out without an accompanying “educational enrichment activity”; a waiver to allow food to be distributed for free, without income verification; and a waiver to allow parents or guardians to pick up food for the kids in their care.

Vonda Ramp is the director of Child Nutrition Programs for Pennsylvania. “We have tried to keep the process as simple as possible,” she told Truthout. “We want attention to be on meals and meal delivery. We processed more than 675 waivers to get 2,500 meal sites approved within three weeks of the schools closing down.”

Prior to the pandemic, public schools, charters and private parochial schools participated in the state’s school meals program, feeding more than a million Pennsylvania kids a day. Now, Ramp says, many of these schools are partnering with one another or working with community organizations to distribute food. Some districts, she adds, have set up specific pick-up locations or hand out food at bus stops along previous pick-up and drop-off routes. “In some rural areas where households may not have transportation to get to a building or to a bus stop, or where people may be unable to get to a meal site during the hours of food distribution, door-to-door deliveries have been arranged,” Ramp says. “They’re giving out up to 10 meals — five days’ worth of breakfasts and lunches — at a time.”

Ramp does not yet know how many meals have been distributed since the shift from in-school to out-of-school meals began. “Schools have 60 days from the last day of the month to report the number served,” she says. “It’s only been six weeks.”

And anecdotally? “We’ve heard that many people are turning to food pantries and soup kitchens instead of schools,” she says, “for a number of reasons. Some families may live closer to a food bank or a church that is giving out groceries, or may want to minimize their travel time or time outdoors. We know by the unemployment data that many families do not have their normal income, so we understand that people may be turning to a variety of sources for nutritional support.”

Food Service Workers Are Vulnerable

Another roadblock to school food disbursement is the virus itself. Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations at the School Nutrition Association says that a late March survey of 1,769 school districts representing 39,978 schools found that while most are engaged in some form of emergency food dispersal, they are also concerned about the health and safety of staff and have tried to limit contact between food preparers and servers and the public. “The transition to multiple meals at a time is meant to reduce congregating and contact,” she says. “Many school cafeteria workers are older women, and in some instances, they have become ill, causing a site to close until they have either recovered or replacement workers have been found.”

Lisa Davis, senior vice president of No Kid Hungry, a 10-year-old D.C.-based anti-hunger and anti-poverty organization, calls school food service workers “superheroes of the pandemic, right up there with those providing health care,” and says that their ingenuity has amazed her. At the same time, she says that the Women, Infants and Children Program (WIC) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps, are actually “the best lines of defense against hunger,” allowing families to shop for what they need and want for themselves, rather than relying on someone else’s idea of what is necessary.

A step toward increasing SNAP was taken in mid-March when the Families First Coronavirus Response Act was signed by the president. This, Davis says, will allow states to raise emergency SNAP allocations. Although only 12 states have been given permission to raise the allotment level as of early May, she is hopeful that the number of state approvals will continue to increase, upping the $646 maximum monthly SNAP grant for a family of four by 40 percent.

This will make a huge difference in Montana, where Heather Denny is the state coordinator for homeless education. “Many of the state’s 4,000 homeless kids live in small towns or extremely small towns, so we load up school buses and drive the route to get food to them,” she tells Truthout. “One of the challenges is that some really small districts don’t offer school meals in normal times. Even before the coronavirus, the one-room schoolhouse in Garrison had two homeless students and had to write to the area food bank to request something for those two to eat at lunchtime. The rest of the kids bring their lunches from home.”

She further notes that as jobs continue to be lost, many Montana residents are relying on food pantries, but those who lack transportation or live in remote locales are undoubtedly suffering. “Say you live in Belgrade, 12 miles outside of Bozeman, where the food bank is located, and you don’t have a car. There’s a bus from Belgrade to Bozeman but it stops about a mile from the pantry. If you have to carry your toddler and your groceries a mile each way, it will be almost impossible for you,” Denny says. “We’re trying to connect people, but it’s not always easy. On the other hand, the mentality here is to share with your neighbors. People know when a particular family is hurting and typically reach out to help.”

Still, increased food stamp allocations will be a boon, she says, allowing people to go into local stores and buy what they need when they need it.

Ann Greenwood, a resident of Waterville, Maine, has her fingers tightly crossed that SNAP eligibility limits will be raised in her state. If that happens, and she and her family can qualify for benefits, it will mean that she can stop pressuring her teenaged sons to race to the bus stop to pick up breakfast and lunch on the three days a week that they are provided. “The kids don’t care for the meals, but we need them,” Greenwood says. “It’s mostly processed food, cereal, whole wheat Pop Tarts, cold sandwiches, carrots, apples, raisins and craisins. Some days they’d actually rather go hungry than meet the bus.”

Greenwood sounds frustrated, tired. “We work really hard,” she says, but her job pays just $12 an hour; her husband’s, $14. “We have two car payments because we each need a car to get to our jobs, plus a mortgage, homeowner’s insurance and taxes. My 14-year-old is a growing boy and can put away more food in one meal than I eat all day. What we get from the school helps, but we’re still forced to shop like misers.”

Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, knows that school staff are working incredibly hard to meet the needs of hungry students, and while he says that he appreciates the effort, he is nonetheless pessimistic about the immediate future. Even if people in all 50 states are able to tap into increased SNAP benefits, he told Truthout that he does not see this making enough of a dent. “Look at how much hunger we had in this country when the economy was fairly good,” Berg says. “When you have a recession and a pandemic together, well, it’s calamitous.”

As an advocate, Berg supports upping wages, expanding eligibility for SNAP and increasing benefits; providing every public school student with two meals a day, regardless of household income; ending bailouts to corporate agribusiness; and ensuring the availability of an adequate supply of nutritious, chemical-free food in every community — rural, urban and suburban.

But as beneficial as these changes would be, Diane Nilan, founder/president of Hear Us Inc., an organization dedicated to amplifying the voices of homeless children and teens, says that a wider set of changes are needed. “It’s time we prioritize basic human needs for those at the bottom of the economic ladder,” she begins. “If you are without a home, lack healthcare, are shut out of the job market, can’t afford childcare, and don’t have access to technology, a meal can seem like crumbs from the table. It’s hard to enjoy food when you know that you and your family need so much more.”

A critical message, before you scroll away

You may not know that Truthout’s journalism is funded overwhelmingly by individual supporters. Readers just like you ensure that unique stories like the one above make it to print – all from an uncompromised, independent perspective.

At this very moment, we’re conducting a fundraiser with a goal to raise $50,000 in the next 9 days. So, if you’ve found value in what you read today, please consider a tax-deductible donation in any size to ensure this work continues. We thank you kindly for your support.