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Free lunch may not be enough to aid hunger as pandemic impacts food security in US

Stephanie Conde
Stephanie Conde

By KELLY MCCARTHY, ABC News

(NEW YORK) — Back to school looks different in 2020 and as many students stay home for remote learning due to the pandemic, those who depend on free lunches are facing new challenges and disparities around food.

The National School Lunch Program, managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), recently extended its flexible summer waiver program through the end of the year to help keep kids nourished. While the way meals are being prepared at school cafeterias, served, distributed and consumed will change, accessibility to those free lunches remains the driving force in keeping students fed.

How an East Los Angeles school has served the food-insecure community in need

As the director of school operations for the Arts in Community Charter Schools in East Los Angeles, Stephanie Conde always made sure that the school was prepared to feed free lunches to nearly 800 students each day before the coronavirus outbreak. But as the pandemic wore on — bringing with it compounding medical and economic tolls — she found that not just students but the entire community was in need.

Conde told ABC News’ Good Morning America she created a system to harness resources to feed the larger community in need, including elderly and disabled individuals.

“When COVID all started, we were one of the few charter schools in our area that decided to feed the community in addition to the students — we had a really big demand,” Conde said. “To me it was about giving access to food to everybody we could.”

“The extension of the waiver has been really helpful to us because we’re now able to start serving the community,” Conde explained.

Families with incomes at or below 130% of the poverty level and children in families receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and kids in families who receive food stamps are eligible for free lunches. Reduced-price lunches are available for any child in a family with income between 130% and 185% of the poverty level. The School Nutrition Association requires the daily meals include 3/4 cup of vegetables, 1 cup of 1% or fat-free milk, 1/2 cup serving of fruit, and an entree with whole grains and a lean protein, but daily menus vary by school district based on market availability.

“We were serving breakfast, lunch and supper, so it was three meals per student per day,” she said of their operation during the pandemic. “We handed out meals to everybody that was 18 years and younger who qualified and adults with disabilities.”

As cases of COVID-19 increased in Los Angeles County, Conde said she could feel people’s fear of leaving their homes to get food, so she used the USDA summer meal waiver as a way to deliver meals contact-free.

“We went on to serving almost 6,000 meals, so it was a big jump, but we saw the need, especially in our area with lots of low-income housing. A lot of those have several families in each apartment, and that’s the reality,” she said of the community in close proximity. “One person got infected, then another. So when someone would get infected we would go deliver the meals to them.”

Conde also contacted building managers that housed seniors with disabilities and found out how many people were in need of a delivered meal.

She tapped other employees from the school, such as playground supervisors and janitorial staff, who had less work to do because children were not on campus.

“My team said, ‘Yes, we believe in it, we know our kids need it. Tell us what to do,'” Conde told GMA.

They created guidelines of what the employees were responsible for at the grab-and-go centers, with five people at each site preparing and delivering the meals, and a couple people who came “early to prepare the packs of meals for the people who were going to go deliver,” she said. One employee with a truck “put everything in boxes and coolers” and delivered them to buildings and families.

“It’s hard — a lot of these families don’t have family leave, they don’t have the same access, they can’t get unemployment — but they still have to buy food,” said Conde. “Taking that burden off, or at least giving them access to food, or knowing that they could count on our school and give them a meal was very important.”

Coming from a Latino household herself, Conde said she was inspired to advocate for her own community, especially families who are fearful of, or feel shame in, asking for government assistance.

“I think one of the things that came with COVID is that this attacks so many people equally,” Conde said. “Even if you don’t have food stamps or rely on free or reduced lunch, it’s opened the eyes and really brought us into the same boat and has given a voice to say, ‘I do need help.’ And then actually requesting help — the two have aligned.”

For many parents and guardians, the free lunch pickup model being used in districts across the country that requires an adult to come to a predetermined location at a specific time to reduce contact, became a hurdle in actually getting their child’s grab-and-go meals.

With the school year already underway, Conde adjusted the in-person schedule for Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays to “decrease exposure to our staff and for those who come get meals.”

“We’re reducing the number of pickup visits to be proactive and conscious about [social distancing],” she explained. “Families have really appreciated that they don’t have to come everyday — especially since it’s so hot and many come walking. I know I can’t send a whole week’s worth. They don’t always have the fridge space. In our school community I need to be conscious of their day-to-day reality.”

Other school districts out West have enlisted bus drivers to give the lunches a lift.

The Tuscon Unified School District in Arizona has mobilized its grab-and-go meal system to 67 stops along 12 bus routes, organized by region to distribute school-provided breakfast and lunch.

Tuscon Unified also made its verification process more flexible for more efficient meal pickup. Guardians can provide a student ID, report card or some school-issued documentation. If that’s not available, they can do a video call to show their student at home, and for any child not enrolled in school, the parent can provide a medical document with the child’s name and date of birth.

Food insecurity and COVID-19

According to No Kid Hungry, a national campaign run by the nonprofit organization Share Our Strength that works to solve problems of hunger and poverty, COVID-19 has been a major setback for ending childhood hunger.

“Some organizations have reported data showing 1 in 4 households with children facing hunger and our new research shows an even higher figure. This represents a huge leap from the 1 in 7 reported in September 2019,” the nonprofit reported.

According to No Kid Hungry, 74% of food-insecure parents who are still working are in essential industries.

“The pandemic has shown how critical schools are to feeding kids. They will need more support as they reopen and explore new ways to reach students, whether that’s meals delivery or alternatives to how traditional school meals like lunch are served,” No Kid Hungry explained in a new report. “Over 20 million kids rely on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for the food they need.”

Sonny Perdue, the secretary of Agriculture, said that as the nation begins to reopen and as more people return to work, “it remains critical our children continue to receive safe, healthy, and nutritious food” from the National School Lunch Program.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, USDA has provided an unprecedented amount of flexibilities to help schools feed kids through the school meal programs,” Perdue said last month upon extending the waivers for the reimbursement program, which is backed by Congressional funding. He added that it will continue “for as long as we can, legally and financially.”

Reggie Ross, president of the School Nutrition Foundation — the charitable arm of the School Nutrition Association, which is a nonprofit organization that represents over 55,000 members who provide meals to students — said in a statement that he “greatly appreciates USDA addressing the critical challenges shared by our members serving students on the front lines these first weeks of school.”

He also said that the waivers allow school nutrition professionals to focus on nourishing hungry children rather than spend time processing paperwork to verify eligibility in the midst of a pandemic.

Lisa Davis, senior vice president of Share Our Strength, said that the extension “is important for hungry kids headed back to school, younger siblings not yet in school, parents struggling to make ends meet and for the schools and community groups rising to the challenge to feed them during this pandemic.”

But while she hailed the critical action by the USDA, Davis said it’s “not enough” because with COVID-19 cases on the rise, “the health and economic effects of this pandemic will likely continue to impact children, families and schools well into 2021.”

“Last minute, stop-gap measures like these can create confusion for parents and barriers to the long-term planning needed to reach the unprecedented number of kids going hungry in our country right now,” Davis said.

As Conde noted, the extension for the free lunch program is a step toward helping already hard-hit communities amid the pandemic, but more resources and awareness is needed to help the free lunches have more reach and direct impact.

“Now with COVID we don’t know what the ramifications are going to be,” she said. “Our families need this help for kids and families having access to this food.”

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