In a typical school year, children’s back-to-school worries might be picking the perfect outfit, remembering a locker combination, or finding a seat in the cafeteria. But this fall, in the wake of COVID-19, millions of children have bigger worries on their minds, including where their next meal will come from–or whether it will come at all.
Before the pandemic, more than half of all public school students relied on free-or reduced-price school meals to meet their daily nutritional needs. Now, as many schools and child care centers remain closed or reopen at reduced capacity this year, millions of children are missing the healthy meals they need to learn and thrive. At the same time, historic job losses coupled with transportation and logistical issues have left many families with fewer resources to replace missed school meals and keep food on the table at home. As a result, children across the country are going hungry at alarming rates. According to the latest Census Pulse Survey, 1 in 7 adults (14 percent) say their children are not getting enough to eat. The rates are even worse for children of color, with nearly 4 in 10 Black and Hispanic children now experiencing food insecurity. By the end of the year, as many as 18 million children–nearly a quarter of all children in America–could be at risk of hunger.
Yet, as child hunger rises, our federal child nutrition assistance programs were left in the balance. The Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT) program, which provides an EBT card for children to replace missed free-or-reduced-price school meals, was set to expire on September 30th. In a positive move this week, after months of pressure from advocacy groups, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 8337, the Continuing Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2021, which included a critical extension of the P-EBT program through September 30, 2021. The bill also makes a number of improvements to the program, including allowing Puerto Rico and the territories to start a P-EBT program, and giving benefits to children at child care centers that have reduced hours or are closed due to COVID-19. We know there is strong evidence that P-EBT has reduced food hardship among the lowest-income families with children and has helped 2.7 to 3.9 million children avoid hunger. Now, millions more children and their families will greatly benefit from this critical extension and expansion.
Similarly, the waiver authority schools need to feed children safely, conveniently, and remotely was also extended in the Continuing Resolution. The authority needed to extend all child nutrition waivers, including the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and Seamless Summer Option (SSO) waivers, which enable schools to feed more children in more accessible locations, would have also expired on September 30. The SFSP and SSO programs were only extended through December 2020, while the rest of the child nutrition programs were extended by the USDA through 2021 school years. Without SFSP and SSO waivers, children would have been forced to prove they’re eligible for school meals and many would have needed to pay for them. What’s worse, families would have been forced to pick up meals at the school where their child is enrolled, meaning siblings attending different schools would no longer be able to collect meals at the same site and children attending charter schools would not be able to access meals at a school closer to home.
Finally, the Continuing Resolution also extends the authority through September 30, 2021 to allow the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) clinics to waive in-person visits for young children and their mothers, which can help stop the spread of COVID-19. This authority has helped provide millions of young babies and their families with the flexibility they need to continue their nutrition education, breastfeeding programs, and other vital healthy development services remotely and safely.
While these extensions and small expansions are important, they are not exhaustive at reaching all children who need healthy food. To further reduce administrative burdens for families and school nutrition programs during the 2020-2021 school year, Congress and the USDA should also allow schools to offer all students meals at no charge as outlined by H.R.7887, the Pandemic Child Hunger Prevention Act. With unemployment and poverty rates on the rise, many children will become newly eligible for free-or reduced-price school meals this fall and next spring. Providing free meals to all students will eliminate the financial and administrative burden of processing new applications and help school meal programs recover from financial losses incurred this year.
If we are to meet this moment and save our children and nation from irreparable harm, we must ensure every child has consistent, safe, and equitable access to nutritious meals during this crisis and beyond. That starts with the Senate passing and the White House signing into law H.R. 8337 for temporary relief, but it doesn’t end with it. Congress must meet this moment urgently with a robust COVID-19 relief package to also boost SNAP benefits and make investments in a variety of basic needs programs that help our children and families thrive.
To learn more about child nutrition programs and their critical role during this pandemic, download our policy brief here.