Over a year ago, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the United States, causing a massive disruption to daily life for Americans. Many Americans were forced to deal with issues of food insecurity due to sudden, unexpected loss of employment. Before the pandemic, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimated that 11-12% of Americans dealt with food insecurity. After the pandemic began in March 2020, national estimates of food insecurity more than tripled to 38%. Feeding America estimates that the pandemic could result in an additional 17 million people becoming food insecure, bringing the total to 54 million people, including 18 million children.
Previously in 2019, nearly 30 million children in the United States qualified for free or reduced-cost school lunches. The pandemic has increased the number of children who struggle with food insecurity while at the same time challenging existing programs to reduce child hunger. Existing school nutrition programs as well as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) are now tasked with reaching millions of additional children with social distancing restrictions and school closures in mind.
School closures provide a huge hurdle when it comes to addressing child hunger. Normally, children of low-income households are able to receive free or reduced-cost meals from their school. However, school closures make it impossible for school-lunch programs to operate regularly. This is a major issue for children because food provided at school and childcare centers provides up to two thirds of a child’s daily nutritional needs and is usually healthier than food brought from home. This means that millions more children are now at risk for food insecurity and susceptible to the short-term effects of hunger such as fatigue and reduced immune response. However, many schools have been able to adapt their lunch programs due to the flexibility granted by the USDA. Instead of regular lunch programs, schools now have flexibility to serve meals in non-congregate settings, and students are not required to be present when meals are picked up.
Back in March 2020, the government passed The Families First Coronavirus Response Act and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act which both provided increased funding for SNAP and child nutrition programs. This legislation created the Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer program (Pandemic-EBT) which allows households to receive extra monetary benefits to cover food costs for children whose schools were closed. The legislation also allows states to request waivers for temporary, emergency SNAP benefits for households already enrolled in the program.
Another COVID relief bill was passed in December 2020 which increased the maximum SNAP assistance by 15% until June 2021. The act also declared that states were allowed to operate the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) Seamless Summer Option (SSO) during the school year until June 2021. This allows parents to pick up free meals for their children, reducing the likelihood of COVID-19 transmission. President Biden’s new COVID relief bill, passed March 11, 2021 provides additional funding for nutrition assistance. The bill designates $5 billion to expand and extend the Pandemic EBT program and extends the 15% increase to the maximum SNAP benefits until September 2021. Additionally, the bill provides $880 million for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), which is used to support low-income mothers and their children.
The shift in responsibility for feeding children from school food programs to SNAP is not as seamless as hoped. The new reliance on SNAP could negatively impact child nutrition because SNAP purchases are not monitored for nutrition as school food is. Many families living in food deserts also lack access to sufficient grocery stores where SNAP benefits can be used. Additionally, before the December relief bill, the USDA allowed states to increase SNAP benefits to the maximum level without increasing the maximum level itself. This meant that the most vulnerable households who were already receiving the maximum level of assistance did not have the option to receive these additional funds. Despite the pitfalls of government assistance, the new relief bill will offer much needed support for nutrition assistance as the pandemic and school closures continue.
By: Jess Firmin