School lunches: Trying to keep kids fed during COVID-19

Youngsters in a kindergarten classroom, pre-pandemic.(Photo: YM.Ku Shahril, via Shutterrstock)

Faced with the enormity of an economic fallout and public health crisis caused by the COVID-19 crisis, California must manage an unprecedented budget deficit, unemployment that rivals the Great Depression, and rising poverty.

With mandated school closures across our state, the response by school districts has been swift and impactful, stepping up to provide free emergency meals despite increased costs and losses of traditional sources of revenue. School districts are losing money and currently are unable to access nutritional services dollars provided from federal COVID-19 relief funding, and they are likely to be stretched too thin to continue service through the summer and into fall. In a recent report, one California school district’s food costs had more than tripled due to increased packaging and added expense of meal kits, while 80% of public school districts reported increases in the overall costs of serving meals during the pandemic.

Of the roughly 6.3 million students enrolled in California public schools, nearly 60% are eligible for free and reduced-price meals.

As a coalition of local, state, and national school food advocates, our collective efforts include improving child health and nutrition programs, expanding meal access to end childhood hunger, building sustainable school communities, and supporting California’s local agriculture economy and workers. Our reality has changed, drastically. We understand the importance of prioritizing the most essential functions of a state in crisis, but we also understand that continued access to food is a basic human need and a fundamental part of our response.

Of the roughly 6.3 million students enrolled in California public schools, nearly 60% are eligible for free and reduced-price meals, and the vast majority of these students are children of color. Communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and those same communities are also more reliant on local schools to provide meal assistance. At a time when job loss and household food insecurity are dramatically on the rise across all demographics, it is essential for the state to help prevent child hunger by providing resources to school nutrition programs that have played such a vital role in keeping our communities nourished.

We are encouraged that the California State Assembly and Senate have proposed some relief for COVID-19 school meal response in their 2020-21 budget. The funding would help address the increased costs of feeding students while promoting expanded access to school meals as the pandemic continues.

Demand for food aid has increased eightfold in some areas, and lines of cars can be seen extending for miles from school sites, along with food banks who have been similarly scrambling to meet the explosion in need. Across the nation, school districts and nonprofit organizations feeding children during the pandemic have lost at least $1 billion, a number that will continue to climb. Without intervention, school districts may have to choose between providing meals to hungry children and a balanced bottom line, commonly achieved through layoffs. Now is not the time to let go of members of this essential workforce who are working tirelessly to provide free food to our kids during the pandemic.

These dollars are critical for helping students immediately in need, keeping communities safe, and stimulating a struggling agricultural economy in crisis. There are long-term costs as well. Student nutrition has been proven to affect academic achievement and quality of life outcomes later in life. And lack of access to healthy food is exacerbated by socio-economic status and is most prevalent in low-income communities of color, which means children who are forced to miss meals now may face potential hardships later.

Despite a lack of resources our schools have continued to persevere, providing critically needed food to communities throughout California. As need increases across the state, now is the time to step up, not step back. We urge the Governor and the Superintendent of Public Instruction to provide this critical funding, and send a strong message that we stand in solidarity with the people and institutions that feed our children. School nutrition programs are providing a frontline response that must have frontline funding.

Editor’s Note: Arnold Sowell Jr. is executive director of NextGen Policy. Adam Kesselman is executive director of the Center for Ecoliteracy.

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