Hungry kids, especially those from lower-income families, got some welcome news this week, as the USDA agreed to extend waivers allowing schools to offer free meals to all students.
The waivers were put into effect in the spring, when the COVID-19 pandemic closed virtually all schools across the nation. The idea was that children who rely on school breakfast and lunch programs for healthy meals would go hungry with no school. The USDA, which normally subsidizes meals for students from low-income families, agreed to reimburse schools for free meals to all students who request them.
The program is similar to those that run through the summer months, when students don’t have access to those school meals. But with schools across the country reopening under various degrees of in-person attendance plans, there was concern needy students could be again be left without meals under remote or hybrid models of learning. The USDA’s announcement Monday secures that opportunity through the end of the calendar year.
The extended reach of the program was no doubt based, in part, on the idea that with many businesses shut down by the pandemic and workers laid off or furloughed, the need for nutritious meals would be felt by many more Americans. With unemployment rates reaching as high as 14.7 percent, and remaining at 10 percent through July, those fears appear warranted. The N.H. Department of Education said five times as many school administrative units participated in the meals program this summer than last.
In fact, those involved in children’s nutrition and food insecurity issues have repeatedly warned of exactly this fallout from the pandemic’s economic effects. About 22 percent of the U.S. population has been food insecure since the pandemic began, according to an April report by the Brookings Institution.
United Nations forecasts show that worldwide, as many as 132 million more people than previously projected could go hungry in 2020 — a total gain that’s more than triple any increase this century. The pandemic is upending food supply chains, crippling economies and eroding consumer purchasing power.
Even in the comparatively wealthy U.S., more than 5 million people can’t afford a healthy diet, the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization found.
And in New Hampshire, the N.H. Food Bank reported this week that one in seven Granite State families is food insecure. And locally, Peggy Higgins, administrative manager at The Community Kitchen in Keene, told the Granite State News Collaborative demand is up about 30 percent since the start of the pandemic.
The USDA’s decision to extend its free meals program may not reach all those who need assistance — many families either don’t realize they can participate, or won’t because of pride or other reasons — but it’s a big step forward in keeping kids fed.