Days before the coronavirus shut down classrooms and cafeterias and much of the world for months, Jeanne Riley went to a school nutrition conference that turned into an emergency session on how to feed children who would be stuck at home.
Riley had attended her share of these gatherings, but as more news came out about the threat of the coronavirus, administrators worried and wondered how they’d reach students who relied on services like free and reduced meals.
“It totally changed the landscape of school nutrition,” Riley said. “Families were hurting. Everyone was hurting.”
Launched by the federal government in 1946, the National School Lunch Program provides free or reduced lunch to children across the country whose families fall below certain income thresholds. In 2016, the most recent year of data available, 30 million students were covered by the program. Still, one out of seven households with children nationwide could not buy enough food in 2020, according to the Food Research & Action Center. And school nutrition experts like Riley understood that a protracted crisis, like the pandemic, would only worsen the stress that these children already endured if nutritious food remained out of reach.
Regarded for years as New England’s most food-insecure state, 43 percent of students in Maine rely on school meals each day, according to Full Plates Full Potential, a state-based advocacy group. Returning from the not-so-normal conference to their school district, nestled about 10 miles north of Portland and not far from the rocky Atlantic coast, Riley and her staff put the logistics they had mapped out to work. They set out to offer meals to all students, not only those who would normally qualify for federal nutrition assistance. Administrators had to cover new meal costs, pay staff and buy more food so that bus drivers and teachers could deliver school meals. Parents could also pick up food directly — an idea that might seem like a no-brainer, but decades-old bureaucratic processes meant that the funding was tied directly to kids eating at school. Getting families to fill out and return paperwork also had been a common barrier that prevented kids from receiving free and reduced lunch — not just in Maine but throughout the U.S.
“We were able to serve children school meals in their homes in many, many different ways,” Riley said.
That experiment — and what Riley and her staff learned from it — has helped transform the way people value those meals. Her state is now a pioneer in enshrining that help for families, as one of the first in the U.S. to pass a law guaranteeing universal school meals for public school students during the next academic year. Signed by Gov. Janet Mills in June, the $34 million bill will go into effect during the 2022-2023 school year after current federal waivers covering pandemic school meal costs around the country expire. With reliable and equitable access to nutritious food for two meals a day during the school year, advocates say Maine’s children will be healthier, more focused and ready to learn.
Lawmakers may also reinforce state efforts, like those in Maine, at the national level. The Biden administration proposed year-round nutrition security in its Build Back Better framework. The plan detailed in late October would expand free meals to nearly 9 million more children during the school year and offered each child a $65 monthly benefit so their families could purchase food during the summer. The plan expanded access by making community eligibility requirements more generous. If 40 percent or more of students enrolled in a school qualified for free or reduced meals, the plan allows the school to offer all students free meals and reimburses the school at a higher rate than had previously been the case.
When the House passed its $1.85 trillion plan, it included $10 billion for child nutrition — pared down from a higher sum in an initial proposal, but that would still provide year-round access to food for 29 million children by giving their families $65 per child each month. The Senate is deliberating and expected to kick back its own version to the House.
Recent constraints on food supply and rising costs have also stretched school districts thin — another reminder of the way that COVID has contributed to food insecurity. The pandemic revealed children’s urgent need for better access to food, as well as how vulnerable they will remain without concrete steps, said Crystal FitzSimons of the Food Research and Action Center.
‘Like summer on steroids’
About 300 miles away in Aroostook County, State Sen. Troy Jackson didn’t understand why coolers were sitting at the end of driveways — one after the other — in his district during the pandemic. There were so many it was “staggering,” he said. When he learned that was how schools were delivering food to students, “It hit me pretty hard,” said Jackson, a lifelong Mainer and son of a logger and a public school teacher.
Before COVID, one out of six children in Maine experienced food insecurity, which the federal government says spans anxiety about running out of food to missing an entire day’s worth of meals, according to Anna Korsen with Full Plates Full Potential. After the coronavirus emerged, that grew to one out of five children in the state, 40 percent of whom did not qualify for school nutrition assistance, illustrating the “complexity of food insecurity,” Korsen said. “It’s not always tied to income.”
“People don’t realize there are food insecure kids in the neighborhood, living next door,” she said.
FitzSimons, who directs the Food Research and Action Center’s school- and out-of-school programs, said that the U.S. sees food insecurity go up when classes are out for the summer.
“When schools closed for the pandemic, it was like summer on steroids,” she said.
Shortly after the pandemic began in 2020, the U.S. Department of Agriculture created waivers to allow for more freedom in distributing foods to students, as well as to cover costs and cut down on paperwork. The USDA extended those waivers and expanded them in April to allow for greater flexibility “to increase funding, support access, and balance operational needs with the goal of providing nutritious meals.” The move to waivers suspended much of the paperwork that families and school staff typically fill out to prove a child’s need for federally assisted meals. Child advocates say that this process has baked stigma and cafeteria classism into school meals where kids must stand in different lines to get food, depending on how much money their family earns.
But these benefits extend beyond feeding children who may have qualified before the pandemic. The coronavirus destabilized life for millions of U.S. families — a household making ends meet one month may be struggling financially the next, or juggling multiple family responsibilities that make preparing lunch every day too onerous.
You can’t always put a price on how the pandemic complicated family life, but by expanding access to nutritious food, you can lighten the load for caregivers and set up children for better outcomes in the classroom, said Brandon Stratford from Child Trends, a national nonprofit research group. Research suggests these programs are associated with fewer reports of tardiness and fewer visits to the school nurse “If you’re a kiddo and you haven’t eaten breakfast, your tummy might hurt,” Stratford said.
Back in Augusta, Maine’s capital, Jackson and fellow legislators began to build momentum for a law that school nutrition advocates, including Riley, had dreamed about for decades — universal school meals for all students, regardless of income. School administrators no longer would need to chase down students who owed lunch debt. Parents no longer needed to fill out eligibility forms that might get misplaced on their way back to school, and students could eat nutritious food without stigma attached to their meal.
“People understood the value of this and how much better kids would learn if they weren’t hungry,” Jackson said.
In Windham, school meal participation has risen from 1,500 students before the pandemic to more than 2,200 students today, Riley said. Teachers like Elizabeth Moran needed no further convincing to know this program helped kids. A mother of two children, ages 9 and 11, Moran instructs students in Windham whose families don’t speak English at home. Before the pandemic, she would help them fill out forms to qualify for the National School Lunch Program. Many struggle financially and “having free meals for them is critical,” she said.
Her own children ate wholesome food through that school meal access that expanded during the pandemic, Moran said. Getting kids fed, dressed and out the door by 6:30 a.m. each day, “the mornings are absolutely insane.” By subtracting from families that expense in money, time and effort, Moran’s students and kids arrive at school less stressed and are more focused in class, she said. And because everyone qualified for meals, they don’t have to worry that someone might tease them for something beyond their control because they ate food prepared at school.
“Kids are aware of [stigma],” Moran said. “They see that. They’re self-conscious. I don’t want to put that on kids’ plates. They’re there to learn.”
Despite the political win, the effort in Maine has run into a new roadblock: economic concerns amid supply chain constraints.
In July, the School Nutrition Association surveyed 1,368 U.S. school meal program directors about the challenges of feeding children during the pandemic. Nearly all directors — 97 percent — were concerned that supply chain issues could disrupt placing bulk food orders and planning affordable meals. Of those directors, 65 percent described this as a serious concern. And 90 percent of directors overall worried about how staff shortages could complicate preparing and serving meals to students.
In Windham, Riley said she and her team are running into issues finding basic staples. Planning her schools’ post-Thanksgiving break lunch menu, Riley struggled to locate enough whole grain hot dog buns, and each bun alone cost at least 12 cents extra due to supply constraints — a “big” increase. Multiplied by 2,000, the number of buns she needed, “That’s $300 and just one part of your meal that’s costing more than what it cost last year,” Riley said
She is forced to compete against restaurants and big vendors for food to serve her school district’s students.
“You still have to offer milk, fruit, vegetables, plus you have to pay staff” within your budget, Riley said.
While federal reimbursement rates to schools for meals have improved, Riley said she hopes this year’s supply chain is resolved next year — a hope that the new law can work to feed all kids without extra stress and complications brought on by the COVID era.