Child hunger won’t end with COVID: Congress must extend nutrition waivers

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Children can’t learn or grow up healthy on an empty stomach. 

That principle has underscored actions taken by Congress and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. When schools closed en masse in 2020, food insecurity spiked as participation in school meals programs plummeted. More than 38 million Americans struggled with hunger in 2020, with rates considerably high among households with children. 

Congress responded with what ultimately became one of the most effective federal policies of the past two years: giving USDA authority to implement child nutrition waivers that provide schools and child care centers with critical flexibility in terms of when, where and how meals are served. What’s more, in recognition of the ongoing economic fallout associated with the pandemic, USDA and Congress ensured enough funds were available so that all children could receive these meals free of charge, regardless of family income levels. Without these steps, a bad situation with respect to food insecurity would have been far worse. 

Two years later, families and schools are slowly beginning to recover from the pandemic, but we are not nearly out of the woods yet. More than 3 million children have fallen back into poverty in 2022, food insecurity is rising again and school food service departments are still struggling to regain their financial footing. Yet the child nutrition waivers are scheduled to expire on June 30.  

Congress must find a way to do right by our children, families and schools by extending these waivers through, at minimum, the 2022-23 school year.  

For tens of millions of children, school meals are an essential component of the school day. Children get up to half of their daily calories at school; for many, schools are the only consistent source of nutritious meals. School meals are often the healthiest foods children will have access to on a given day, and research shows that healthier meals lower the risk of obesity among children growing up in poverty while helping children succeed in the classroom. For the families that rely on them each day, school meals are not merely a convenience, but a lifeline.    

This lifeline extends not only to children’s physical health but their mental health as well. A 2021 research review found that “food insecurity was significantly and positively associated with multiple indicators of psychological distress.” One recent study found that food insecurity was associated with a 257 percent higher risk of anxiety and a 253 percent higher risk of depression. The youth mental health crisis in the United States will require a comprehensive set of solutions, and ensuring that all children are well-fed must be a core component of that response.   

Our entire nation should celebrate that nearly all children have returned to school; 99.7 percent of students are currently receiving the many benefits of in-person instruction. But we should not conflate a return to classrooms with a return to normal school operations — especially with respect to meals. A recent national survey revealed that 95 percent of school food service departments are struggling with staff shortages and 97 percent are facing rising costs due to supply chain issues. No wonder, then, that 90 percent of school food authorities have elected to utilize child nutrition waivers during the current school year, per a recent USDA survey.  

It will likely take years for schools to recover financially from the devastating impacts of the pandemic. Even with waivers in place, school food service departments suffered more than $2 billion in federal revenue losses between March and November 2020. If the waivers expire prematurely, schools currently receiving higher reimbursement rates for meals served will see those rates drop significantly. Schools will once again be forced to devote their already stretched resources to processing and verifying income applications to see who qualifies for free and reduced-price meals — a system that causes many students in need to miss out due to stringent income eligibility guidelines and application challenges. Children who do successfully qualify regularly face stigma, often forced to stand in separate lines or receive different meals.  

Given current economic conditions, schools would be far better off devoting their resources to helping children learn and keeping them safe and healthy. And all families should continue to have the peace of mind that comes with meals being available at no charge. A systematic review of 47 studies found that this is a sound and vital investment that reduces food insecurity, boosts school attendance and academic achievement and further benefits schools financially.  

We all hope that this moment marks the end of the pandemic as we know it. But pandemic or not, this nation should not stand for even one child hungry at school. Child nutrition waivers were the right move two years ago, and they’re the right move today. Congress should extend them without delay.  

Jamie Bussel is a senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Twitter: @jbusselLuis Guardia is the president of the Food Research & Action Center. Twitter: @fracprez

Tags Food politics Food security Hunger in the United States Pandemic Child Hunger Prevention Act robert wood johnson foundation School meal School meal programs in the United States

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