Organizations Working Together For All Children in Guilford County Share Why Pandemic Waivers For School Nutrition Are Crucial for Students EVERYWHERE.
For tens of millions of children in the United States, school isn’t just a place to learn, but a place where they can depend on receiving healthy meals. When COVID-19 swept across the nation this spring and forced at least 124,000 schools in the United States serving 55 million students to close, a public health crisis quickly became an education crisis and a nutrition crisis.
Guilford County Schools (GCS) and local food partners responded quickly, implementing “Grab and Go” models allowing parents to pick up meals in school parking lots or other community hubs; loading up school buses with meals and dropping them off at stops along neighborhood routes, as well as getting food for the weekend. By May, over 1.7 million meals had been distributed in Guilford County. The USDA did its part by issuing a series of waivers granting more flexibility in how meals could be prepared, packaged, and served.
Today, there are many questions about the 2020–2021 school year as district officials tackle unprecedented challenges. The last thing districts should be worrying about upon reopening is how to process meal applications and figuring out who qualifies for free or reduced-price categories; their mission of educating and feeding students as safely as possible should be their primary concern.
The USDA needs to extend the pandemic school feeding waiver so every child has easy access to the nutrition they need. This waiver will accomplish three key goals.
1. More families will have enough to eat.
Since March, North Carolina’s unemployment rate has jumped to 12.9 percent and food prices have skyrocketed. The Institute for Policy Research estimates that food insecurity rates doubled overall and tripled for families with children between March and April 2020 due to spikes in unemployment and greater difficulty accessing school meals. A local food pantry, Backpack Beginnings, reports serving nearly four times as many students this summer than last summer.
2. More children will receive healthy meals that help them grow, learn, and thrive.
USDA’s research shows that the nutrition content of school meals has increased significantly, and student participation in meal programs is highest in schools that serve the healthiest meals.
In fact, research published in Health Affairs shows that the healthier school meals are associated with a significant decrease in the risk for obesity, and can also help them succeed in the classroom. For instance, research shows that eating regular breakfast, including breakfast at school, has cognitive benefits, including a mainly positive effects on on-task behavior in the classroom and children’s academic performance.
3. Schools will be spared financial and administrative burdens.
GCS is facing enormous logistical and operational challenges ahead of the 2020–2021 school year, and meal service is no exception. Per a recent School Nutrition Association survey, more than 860 school districts nationwide reported combined estimated financial losses from food service programs of more than $626 million due to the impacts of COVID-19. With the number of children who would otherwise qualify for free and reduced-price meals expected to jump significantly, the federal government should step in to ensure that every child is properly fed during the school day at no expense to schools or families.
For more than 70 years, students have relied on national school meals programs to keep them healthy and help them learn, but their importance to our health and well-being has never been greater. Universal free school meals won’t solve every challenge associated with this pandemic, but it is key to a safe and equitable recovery.
Please contact your representatives in Congress and tell them you support extending pandemic school feeding waivers.
This piece is a collaborative effort of several people and organizations working to every child has the good nutrition they need, every day: Ashley Bonner with Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest NC, Kevin Gray & Emily McCollum with Weaver Foundation, Karen Hornfeck with Guilford Education Alliance, Leslie Isakoff with A Simple Gesture, and Parker White with Backpack Beginnings