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Schools scramble to fill hunger gaps as pandemic student lunch funding expires

While President Joe Biden has signed some federal supports for child meal programs into law, cities across the nation are scrambling to prevent an accelerating child hunger crisis that worsened during the pandemic.

Biden signed the Keep Kids Fed Act on Saturday, extending some of the free school lunch aid activated during the pandemic for public school students. This bill passed despite the efforts of some Republicans, such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who opposed extending waivers for food programs. Some objected on the grounds that the Agriculture Department disallows LGBTQ discrimination in any program that receives federal nutrition money.

With part of the federal program surviving past June 30, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack wrote in a statement, “Throughout the pandemic, the school nutrition professionals who feed our children faced enormous challenges, which persist today, and they desperately need additional resources and continued flexibilities. The deal passed by Congress will ease some of the uncertainty and provide partial relief to our schools, summer sites and child care feeding programs.”

While the bill renews some provisions that would have expired Thursday, it does not extend the entire program.  

The USDA received authority to implement waivers allowing child nutrition programs to forego some safety requirements in March 2020, under the Trump administration. Waivers allowed flexibility for school districts, for example by allowing them to provide multiple meals to be picked up at one time and removing requirements that students eat in a cafeteria. The USDA Universal Free Meals program began last April under the Biden administration to support growing numbers of students and families, who were more likely to need free meals.

The new law extends waivers through the summer to allow meal deliveries and grab-and-go options for students. But suspended eligibility requirements for free meals were not retained, which effectively curtails the universal free meal policy. According to NPR, some schools are preparing to raise meal prices and families who paid for meals before the pandemic will pay more once the waivers expire. And child nutrition programs are still suffering from reduced federal reimbursements and increased costs, according to Food Research and Action Center. 

Prior to the pandemic, 14.8% of households with children were food-insecure. Experts say pre-existing racial disparities are exacerbated by slower financial recovery among communities of color. Feeding America, a nonprofit network of food banks, estimated that during 2021, one in five Black Americans experienced food insecurity compared to one in nine white individuals.

Major cities across the West are scrambling to fill ongoing service gaps. In Portland, Oregon, the city school district and city parks department will offer daily lunch and activities in parks until August 19. Lunch is free for all children, but grab-and-go meals are no longer available because students must be present to receive food. 

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SUN Community School Food Pantries, partnering with Oregon Food Bank, said it will still provide up to five days of food to families on evenings, weekends and other non-school days. 

Portland Public Schools Nutrition Services senior director Whitney Ellersick said now that Biden signed the Keep Kids Fed Act, “We will need to learn what this means and how states will interpret this new guidance for the summer and new school year.”

According to one USDA report on food insecurity. nearly one in seven Oregon households were “food insecure” between 2014 and 2016. About 1 in 4 children are from low-income, food-insecure homes and approximately 315,000 students across Oregon are eligible for free or reduced price meals, per Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon. About 43,000 children benefited from $591 million in meal assistance between 2020 and 2021, including $234,000 in grants for schools and nonprofits.

At 9.8%, California’s rate of food insecurity is slightly below the 10% national average, while Arizona’s is higher at 11%. The Phoenix Elementary School District announced that meals will still be distributed throughout the summer by a bus, using USDA funding and a grant with the Maricopa County Department of Public Health. 

However, some students will be left hanging next school year. While the Arizona Department of Education did not report the number of children statewide who will be impacted by the loss of free school lunches, they told news stations it is certain that the state will no longer offer free lunches to all at the beginning of the new school year.

The district also reports that the city’s downtown area is a food desert, as residents must travel more than a mile to access a grocery store and children may have less access to healthy food without school meal support. A news report in Phoenix identified a local food bank, St. Mary’s, which sometimes serves more than 1,000 people a day in June. 

“We understand many barriers exist that limit children and youth from accessing nutritious food during the summer,” the city’s elementary school district said in a statement. “We understand hunger does not take a vacation and our desire is to actively address nutritional inequities.”

Large cities along California’s coast are facing rising costs and increasing numbers of families in need of food aid.

In San Diego, 450,000 people — including 177,000 children — faced food insecurity every day in 2019, according to a report from San Diego Food Bank. 

The food bank now feeds 550,000 people every month through 500 nonprofit community partners, and reported the average visitor comes from a household with at least one child. The bank partnered with 14 school districts to run distribution sites for families with children, serving about 3.8 million pounds of food between March 2020 through December 2021.

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Among the city’s organizations working to provide meals to youth, San Diego Hunger Coalition announced it would only be on the ground this summer to provide meals through the end of June.

The nonprofit Feeding San Diego also announced last week it would expand sites to assist with feeding children. Its free meal program is open until July 22, the district said Friday. 

A city spokesperson could not confirm if any sites will be affected by changes under the new congressional action with the future loss of universal free meals.

In the Bay Area, Oakland’s city leaders and Oakland Unified School District arranged contracts for millions of meals for students, expanding to 43 sites at libraries and schools where families pick up meals. The city’s Summer Food Service Program is offering free meals for low-income children for another season, in partnership with Oakland Housing Authority and community organizations. The Oakland City Council approved a recommendation that the city administrator apply for a USDA California Department of Education grant, totaling $249,723 through June 30, 2023. 

But the district faces criticism for closing schools like Parker Elementary due to budget cuts; parents argue that closures will further isolate children from care and meals.

Courtney Clair told the council that parents like herself rely on school sites to take care of their children, adding “the threat of homeless” is weighing on them. Another parent, Nino Parker, said in a phone interview that children will have to travel further to go to school sites for services and food, and parents will be forced to drive longer distances to pick up their children and summer meals.

“People in affluent white neighborhoods, their children are walking to school and their schools aren’t closing,” Parker said. “But the Black and Brown districts are feeling it. The price of gas can really hurt a family driving all the way across town to go to school.”

Joe DeVries, Oakland’s deputy city administrator, said in a phone interview that the city’s goal is to help OUSD support parents who rely on schools to get free lunches all summer. He said the district will put out a bid for more meal vendors in the fall, and is working with Alameda County’s Board of Supervisors to create a “food hub” to ensure food is “distributed to people in need before it goes bad, before it goes to the landfill.”

Eyeing the national cutbacks to food programs and a state budget that just advanced forward, DeVries said the county and school district must work together “to jump on any opportunity that prevents itself to us.”

“It’s not just about children, food insecurity goes deeper than that and wider,” he said. “With inflation, we’re going to have to continue to weave that into the fabric of what we offer as a basic service.”

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USDA

The pandemic-era federal aid that made school meals available for free to all public school students — regardless of family income levels — is ending, raising fears about the effects in the upcoming school year for families already struggling with rising food and fuel costs.