School meal service plummets during pandemic

As a growing number of families struggle to make ends meet during the COVID pandemic, school nutrition support for these families and their children has plummeted.

Both the number of free and low-cost school lunches served to New Jersey children and the number of children served plunged 51 percent from April 2019 to April 2020, according to a new report from the Food Research & Action Center. The number of breakfasts and children served dropped 36 percent during that time.

Afterschool snacks and suppers saw an even greater decline, with the number of snacks served plunging 77 percent and dinners served plummeting 82 percent.

“This is unprecedented and extremely alarming,” said Adele LaTourette, director, Hunger Free New Jersey. “Hundreds of thousands of New Jersey children rely on school meals to stay healthy and to stay focused in school. These meals are a critical support to their academic success.”

LaTourette noted that many New Jersey school districts have been offering free meals to all families during the pandemic. The United States Department of Agriculture has relaxed rules to make it easier for schools to feed children during remote learning, including allowing districts to deliver meals directly to homes, provide meals at pick-up or drive through locations and deliver meals along bus routes.

Despite these efforts, transportation barriers, lack of awareness, food quality and limited pick-up hours are keeping participation low, LaTourette said. FRAC’s report found that nearly 82 percent of school districts nationally are distributing meals through “grab and go” or curbside pickup – a trend that is also happening in New Jersey.

“For this method of distribution to work, it has to be available at various times to accommodate the schedules of working parents,” LaTourette said. “We are hearing that many districts are only offering meals twice a week in the morning hours. This makes it very difficult, if not impossible, for working parents to pick up meals for their children.”

She notes that many of the families most in need are low-income, frontline workers – child care providers, grocery clerks, delivery people – who must be physically present at their jobs and lack flexibility to pick up meals during the day.

Transportation issues have also been cited as a barrier to participation, LaTourette said.

“While it is great that many districts are serving multiple meals for multiple days at one time, for parents without a car, getting all those meals home at one time can be problematic,” LaTourette said.

This sharp decrease in school meal service also means that districts are losing millions in federal reimbursements that could be used to feed children.

School districts should improve access to school meals by:

Working with other community organizations, such as food pantries, social service agencies and others to distribute and deliver meals,

Setting up meal sites strategically throughout the community in areas where parents can easily access meals,

Implementing flexible meals times so working parents are able to pick up meals,

Using school buses and regular routes to deliver meals so families can pick up meals at their regular bus stops,

Delivering meals directly to families,

Ensuring parents know about the availability of meals by providing menus and pickup or delivery information through various platforms, including e-mail, robo calls, text messages, district websites and social media,

Improving the quality of meals served.

The New Jersey Department of Human Services should also quickly distribute the new round of Pandemic EBT, a federal program that provides funds directly to families to buy food, helping to replace school meals lost during school closures. Department officials are reportedly working on a plan but have yet to provide any details, LaTourette said.

FRAC also called on Congress to increase funding for child nutrition programs and continue flexibilities in program administration that can increase access for many children.

“Good nutrition is as important to our students’ academic achievement as internet access and laptops during remote learning,” LaTourette said. “Hungry kids struggle to learn. The funds are there to feed our children. We need to get more creative in how we are doing it.”

To read the report, click here. To learn more, visit hungerfreenj.org.

Find more information about serving meals during school closures.

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