What do hungry kids do when the school cafeteria is closed?

Updated: Aug 19, 2021

By Elizabeth Pachus, Callie DiModica, and Tenzin Namgyal

July 16th, 2021

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to close in March 2020, it disrupted one of the most vital hunger prevention programs in the United States—The National School Lunch Program (NSLP). The NSLP provides free and reduced-price meals for an estimated 29.4 million school children everyday across the country. The program reaches the greatest number of food-insecure children during the nine months of the year where children are learning in the classroom. The summer months have always created an additional challenge in ensuring all children receive the same nutritious and reliable lunches as they do throughout the school year. School closures due to the pandemic this past year have only continued to destabilize a normally-reliable food source for families and children. Without the NSLP operating in its normal capacity during this time of remote learning, many households have faced an increasing financial burden, resulting in higher rates of food insecurity among children. Food insecurity poses a severe threat to children across the country—it’s critical that we put a permanent end to it.

Child Food Insecurity in America

Child food insecurity has always been a dire issue in America, affecting millions of children. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 1 in 7 American children were living in a food-insecure household , meaning that these estimated 10.7 million kids didn’t have access to reliable and nutritious meals, threatening their health and ability to succeed. The pandemic has only exacerbated financial instability for families across the country, causing even more children to wonder where their next meal will come from. Now, projections state that 1 in 6 children may face food insecurity in 2021. Food insecurity can have serious implications beyond a child’s hunger and physical health—50% of children facing hunger will need to repeat a grade. Food-insecure children are also more likely to suffer from toxic stress, which can “negatively affect brain development, learning, information processing, and academic achievement in children”.

Though pervasive across the country, child food insecurity doesn’t affect all households at the same rate; Black and Hispanic children are twice as likely as white children to live in a food-insecure household. In addition to the pandemic disproportionately affecting communities and families of color, systemic racism and discrimination have historically made it even more of a challenge for Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) to access affordable, reliable, and nutritious food sources.

Along with affording parents and families the relief of knowing their children have reliable access to a filling lunch during the school day, the National School Lunch Program also provides an added nutritional benefit. A recent study from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University found that school lunches provide some of the nutritious meals in a food insecure child’s diet.

What Happens During the Summer?

While the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated child hunger by causing school closures, each year, summer vacation poses a similar challenge. Summer break can mean students lose access to daily lunches and sometimes even breakfast, dinner, and snack options that can serve as vital sustenance for children who struggle with food insecurity. There are currently two summer programs that are similar to the USDA’s NSLP: the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and the Seamless Summer Option (SSO). These programs allow sites such as schools and summer camps to apply for federal reimbursement to provide free and reduced-price breakfasts and lunches to children.

Community Organizations Bridging the Gap

Although these summer programs do exist, the burden of filling the gap left by the absence of school lunches in the summer often falls on local non-governmental organizations. This is the case in Concord, North Carolina, where Aronda Dunlap-Elder oversees summer and year-round food supplementary programs for local children called Walking in the Harvest. Aronda oversees the day camp run through Walking in the Harvest and two local food pantries. She says the organization has already provided more than 3,000 meals to children since June 14 and will continue its program through August 6.

Looking Towards a Future Without Child Food Insecurity

This type of community effort to feed students in the summer is typical in areas where food insecurity is high. Still, these programs are hardly enough to eradicate the summer months' higher rates of child hunger. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the light it shined on child food insecurity with school closures, lawmakers have been paying more attention to solving this issue. In April of this year, Senators Lisa Murkowski and Kirsten Gillibrand introduced a bipartisan bill, The Summer Meals Act of 2021, to develop and modernize existing summer meal programs by expanding eligibility for summer meals at meal sites and providing mobile meal delivery for hard-to-reach communities. Additionally, President Biden's American Families Plan, introduced in April, looks to establish a permanent summer EBT program, providing families with grocery benefits in the summertime.

While these are positive strides towards achieving food security for children year-round, the problem of child hunger will persist as long as the structural inequities in the food system do. In order to have a world in which every child has healthy and nutritious food, these structural inequities must be recognized and addressed. The increase in child food insecurity each summer serves as a somber reminder of how important the fight for a more equitable food system is. We urge you to join us in that fight so that no child goes hungry.