While schools have been proactive and creative with their student meal distributions during the pandemic, concerns are growing that programs will struggle in the coming months to keep up with the demands or be unable to reach those in need, warned No Kid Hungry, a campaign of poverty alleviation nonprofit Share Our Strength that aims to end childhood hunger, during a reporter town hall meeting Dec. 3.
Only 44% of households in the U.S. are very confident they have the resources to make sure their children have enough to eat over the next four weeks, according to data cited by Lisa Davis, senior vice president of the No Kid Hungry campaign at Share Our Strength.
Rising rates of childhood hunger worry educators who warn that students who do not receive enough food will suffer academically, socially and emotionally. “Kids can't learn if they're hungry and kids are scared when they're hungry,” said Gay Anderson, child nutrition director with the Brandon Valley School District in Brandon, South Dakota.
The pandemic combined with the arrival of winter, school holiday breaks and an unpredictable economic situation for many families will make this season an especially critical time for school meal distribution to students experiencing food insecurity.
Anderson and Davis recently spoke at a virtual No Kid Hungry reporter town hall meeting that highlighted the efforts school districts and community partners are making to distribute grab-and-go meals, bring food directly to students’ homes and to connect families with other supports. Those activities, however, are not enough to meet all the needs, and they predict the colder weather, shorter days, school winter breaks and rising economic hardships will make the difficult situation even worse.
“It's particularly heartbreaking because before COVID hit, we were on a pathway to end childhood hunger and had seen remarkable progress over the last several years, all of which was undone in just a matter of months,” Davis said.
Educators are being attentive of any action Congress may take to increase Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits and to extend the moratorium on residential evictions, which is set to expire Dec. 31. Congressional leaders have also been in discussions about another COVID-19 stimulus bill, as well as options for a continuing resolution for FY 2021 appropriations. The current CR is set to expire Dec. 11.
All of these factors could impact how schools and their community partners will need to respond to the hunger needs, said the panelists. The pandemic has highlighted the critical role schools play in food distribution for children, Davis said in a follow-up interview.
Former U.S. Secretary of Education and President and CEO of The Education Trust John B. King Jr., who participated in the town hall, praised schools for their flexibility and creativity in providing food to students even when schools were in varying learning formats and for helping families access pandemic electronic benefits transfer payments, which provides supplemental allocations to families whose children receive free or reduced priced meals at schools.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has also extended flexibilities to allow for free meals to all children through June 30, 2021.
Here are just a few examples of the efforts schools and community partners are making this year to provide food to children, according to No Kid Hungry:
Fauquier County Public Schools in Warrenton, Virginia is using a $41,592 grant from No Kid Hungry to partner with a local food bank and investing in a van to distribute food to more remote regions. When the mobile food van is not delivering school meals to students, the Fauquier Reaches for Excellence in School Health program uses the vehicle to distribute fresh produce to families throughout the region.
Coalinga-Huron Unified School District in Coalinga, California, packs grab-and-go breakfasts and lunches for 4,500 students every day. These meals are served at three drive-through sites in the community and are being delivered to children in rural communities.
The School District of Palm Beach County in West Palm Beach, Florida, is operating 35 emergency feeding sites that are expected to serve 40,000 meals a day.
Montgomery County Public Schools in Rockville, Maryland, has partnered with Manna Food Center to provide bags of food to children on the weekends and distribute food to students’ bus stops, according to Davis.