Lunch in the Time of COVID-19: What Schools Need Now to Ensure Kids Don’t Go Hungry During a Pandemic

March 10, 2020 | 3:03 pm
Karen Perry Stillerman
Deputy Director

UPDATE, 3/12/20: In the face of what is now officially a pandemic, schools around the United States are increasingly making decisions to close. Education Week is updating the numbers twice daily, but as of this morning, March 12, nearly 2,100 schools have been closed or were scheduled to close, affecting more than a 1.3 million students.


Regular readers will know that I take a pretty dim view of the Trump administration’s Department of Agriculture and many of its anti-science, anti-farmer, and just plain mean-spirited actions over the past three years. The administration is also getting a lot of things (very) wrong in its response to the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19). But last week, the USDA got something right when it moved to help two states facing serious virus outbreaks ensure that schoolchildren can access free and reduced-priced meals even when schools are closed during this emergency. Unfortunately, schools and the children they serve across the nation are likely to need a lot more of this support in the weeks and months ahead.

Healthy school meals are also public health protections

In two separate actions last week, the USDA approved a request from the state of Washington and one from California to make school meals available to kids during COVID-19 related school closures. In contrast with the usual rules governing school breakfast, lunch, and after-school snack programs, meals will not need to be served in a group setting—in other words, kids won’t have to sit in a cafeteria or gym together, sharing germs as they share a meal.

What this will look like in practice is unclear and will depend on conditions on the ground. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) last month published guidance that suggests schools “consider options such as ‘grab-and-go’ bagged lunches or meal delivery.” And during past disasters, schools have made various arrangements to ensure meals for displaced students—in 2017, when wildfires and poor air quality caused schools in Oregon to close, the USDA approved the state’s request that children be allowed to take home individually sealed meals instead of eating them on site. The department can also allow meals to be served at sites like libraries and churches.

Such flexibility is important, because some 30 million children across the country participate in USDA-funded school meal programs every year. A large majority of those kids rely heavily on these programs because of low household incomes: according to USDA data, nearly three-quarters of school lunches nationwide are provided for free or at a reduced price. The free lunch participation rate has gone up every year since 2001, standing at 20.2 million in 2018. And the CDC estimates that children consume as much as half of their daily calories at school, with kids from food-insecure households getting a larger proportion of their daily food and nutrition intake from school meals.

Free-lunch participants are already at increased health risk

The continuation of school meal programs in a safe, workable form during a public health emergency that increasingly looks like a pandemic is critical. Low-income children are at increased risk of a whole host of adverse health outcomes, and their households are likely to be hardest hit by COVID-19. Breadwinners for those households are less likely to have paid sick leave (much less the ability to minimize their exposure by teleworking), and they rely more on crowded public transportation. Moreover, poverty is associated with higher rates of chronic respiratory conditions like COPD, which researchers believe increase the danger of COVID-19. Anxious and under-resourced parents shouldn’t have to make yet another choice between protecting their families from a dangerous virus and getting their kids the daily nutrition they need.

Already, the need for school meals outside of schools extends beyond Washington and California. Pennsylvania and New Jersey have also experienced significant numbers of school closures, as has New York, where today the governor announced new 14-day closures in an affected zone in Westchester County. According to Education Week’s interactive tracker, as of March 10, 621 schools have been closed or are scheduled to close, affecting 434,472 students.

Is Congressional action needed?

Last week, the School Nutrition Association (SNA), which represents school food professionals, sent Secretary Perdue a letter asking broadly for USDA waivers like those Washington and California have now received. But just as the need ramps up, it appears there are limits to what the USDA can do to help schools that may close.

“We’re going to be as flexible as we absolutely can with the regulations that food and nutrition services have,” Perdue told SNA leaders at a policy conference this week. “It’s not because we don’t want to, it’s because those statutes don’t allow that discretion from USDA.” The waivers granted to Washington and California, for example, only cover school districts where more than half of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, meaning higher-poverty schools within other districts might be out of luck.

Over on Capitol Hill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have called on the Trump administration to expand school meal and other nutrition assistance programs (among other actions) in the face of the coronavirus outbreak. It’s worth noting that congressional reauthorization of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act—the 2010 law that governs school meals programs—has been stalled since 2015.

Meanwhile, the Washington and California waivers will remain in effect through June 30, which marks the end of the school year. What happens next fall (when scientists believe we may see a second wave of COVID-19) is anyone’s guess.