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Some advocates say the summer feeding programs could be more flexible even when there’s not a national emergency.
School’s out for summer, and for millions of kids who rely on school lunches that means a lot of anxiety around whether or not they’ll get fed. But a new report suggests that the pandemic may provide some learnings on how to fill the summer meal gap.
Nearly double the number of children as usual received free meals during the first summer of the Covid-19 pandemic. The results suggest that quick action by the federal government to rewrite long-standing rules governing summer food programs had their intended effect. With schools shut down and summer programs canceled, the federal government waived more than a dozen rules governing summer meals.
That allowed at least 5 million children to receive free meals during the summer of 2020.
“Simply put, these waivers kept more kids fed,” said Liana Washburn, a nutrition researcher at Mathematica, and one of the co-authors of the study, which was conducted for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “We believe lessons learned in 2020 can inform how to improve participation and access to child nutrition programs during the school year and in summer months, despite the end of the public health emergency.”
The findings come as policymakers are evaluating the changes made over the past several years to programs designed to prevent child hunger, and as they are looking for practices they can carry forward. Many states, for example, are making free school meals permanent following the end of a similar pandemic-era federal program.
Congress allowed the waivers for summer feeding programs to continue through 2022, but those waivers are no longer in effect for this summer. Some advocacy groups, like the Food Research & Action Center and the Bipartisan Policy Center, have called for making all or some of the pandemic-era flexibility permanent.
That decision ultimately would be up to federal lawmakers and regulators, rather than to state and local providers. But for the first three years of the pandemic, the federal government gave providers lots of extra options in how they carried out the summer food programs.
The waivers from the Food and Nutritional Service of the Agriculture Department, for example, allowed meals to be served at nontraditional times and outside of group settings. Parents and guardians were allowed to pick up meals and bring them home to their children.
Those extra options for the summer programs were especially important during 2020, because the programs cover times when schools are widely closed. So when schools shut down in the spring of 2020, providers were able to use the summer meal programs to feed students. Many used them in the fall as well.
“Those waivers helped them serve a large number of meals to families in a safe way," Washburn said. "They were able to social distance. They were able to keep their children from getting exposed to Covid and they were able to get a lot of meals out."
When school is not in session, the federal government’s main ways of providing food for students are through two summer programs: Schools that provide lunches during the academic year can participate in the Seamless Summer Option. The other choice for schools, as well as local governments, youth sports groups and other nonprofit groups, is to participate in the Summer Food Service Program.
The summer programs reach far fewer children than the free and reduced lunches provided during the school year. In 2019, the summer programs only served one-seventh of the children who received free or discounted meals in school that year, the Bipartisan Policy Center noted. In fact, participation in the summer programs had been declining for four straight years, even while participation in school programs remained steady.
“This demonstrates that the need for meals remains, but that the accessibility to summer meals is low,” researchers at the Bipartisan Policy Center wrote last year.
Lindsay Aguilar, the director of the food services department at the Tucson Unified School District, said the federal waivers allowed the southern Arizona school district to reach far more children than it normally does in the summer.
The Tucson school district shut its buildings in March, when students were on spring break. More than 70% of the district’s students qualify for free and reduced lunch. That meant that in a district of 42,000 students, the schools would serve between 20,000 and 25,000 meals a day. Those students needed another option when spring break ended. So the district switched to its summer meal program a few months early. Workers prepared meals, loaded them in coolers on school buses and delivered free breakfast and lunch to families at more than 100 sites throughout the district.
But even daily deliveries to neighborhood sites were hard for many families to take advantage of. So the school district started offering two days’ worth of food at a time—something that would not have been possible before the waivers, Aguilar said.
Eventually, the district put together a drive-through at its main food preparation site, so families who signed up online could pick up meals for their whole week.
At the height of its Covid response, the school district was serving about 8,000 students a week through the summer program. Parts of that program—particularly the ability for parents to bring meals home—went through last June. Now the district is working under the older rules.
“All the meals are still free to all children 18 and under, but meals typically have to be consumed on site,” Aguilar explained. “You can only serve one meal type at a time: If it’s breakfast time, you serve breakfast. If it’s lunchtime, you serve lunch. There’s no combination [of the meals], no grab-and-go.”
Tucson just started its summer meals program this week. June is its busiest month of the summer, because summer school and other programs usually end by July.
“The biggest question we are getting, and the biggest source of confusion, at our summer locations from families is: Why can’t these meals be taken home?” Aguilar said. “We definitely saw more participation from families wanting to get a meal and taking it to go, than having to take the time to bring your kids, sit down, eat and then go. It’s just not as convenient for a lot of families.”
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.