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csba at issue
By Christina Hecht
Supporting school meals during COVID-19 and beyond
After uncertainty created by a U.S. Department of Agriculture announcement that school meal waivers put in place during the initial pandemic response in the spring would be extended only through Dec. 31, 2020, an agreement on a continuing resolution to extend government funding through Dec. 11 included authorization for the USDA to extend the school meal program waivers that have ensured millions of children remain fed during school closures caused by the pandemic. On Oct. 9, the USDA extended waivers that allow Summer Food Service Program and Summer Seamless Option meals to be served in all areas and at no cost to students; permit meals to be served outside of the typically required group settings and meal times; waive meal pattern requirements, as necessary; and allow parents and guardians to pick up meals for their children.

USDA waivers, authorized by Congress through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act of 2020, have allowed schools to provide free meals to any child up to age 18. Additional flexibilities have been instrumental in navigating difficulties in meal distribution and logistics. The waivers, together with remarkable dedication by food service staff, have enabled school nutrition programs to play an invaluable role in making sure all children can stay nourished and healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The continuing resolution also appropriated funds for school nutrition and renewed the Pandemic-EBT program for the 2020–21 school year, including allowing states to extend P-EBT to younger children whose families receive SNAP (known as CalFresh in California) and who normally receive meals in childcare.

School meals are a key to health. A recent study in Health Affairs, “Impact Of The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act On Obesity Trends,” confirms that students who eat school meals daily ate less saturated fat and sugar than students not eating school meals. In addition, the children who ate school meals had smaller increases in weight and obesity, thus showing the value of the new meal standards introduced through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Placing these health benefits in the context of California’s health portrait shows why we need to insist on school meal quality — and to do even better, and for more children. In just one marker of societal unhealthfulness, a 2019 analysis estimated that by 2030, 41.5 percent of California adults will be considered obese and 18.3 percent will be severely obese (that is, have a Body Mass Index of 35 or greater) if current trends continue. The young adults of 2030 are today’s children.

Hands holding bag of food
With economic disruptions owing to COVID-19, more families than ever face food insecurity. In April, the U.S. Census Bureau initiated the Household Pulse Survey to track COVID-19 impacts on households. An analysis of Pulse survey data from July 2020 show that in California, 24 percent of adults in households with children reported that “the children [in their household] were not eating enough because we just couldn’t afford enough food.” In July, 28 percent of California children were in households reporting that they were behind on the rent or mortgage and/or did not get enough to eat. The average unemployment rate for Californians this summer was 13.3 percent. Compare these figures with USDA data for California for 2018–19 that indicate 9.9 percent were food insecure, while the unemployment rate was 4 percent.

Strong school meal programs are needed and will continue to be needed until the economy recovers.

COVID-19 school nutrition service challenges
Running a school nutrition service is always challenging — keeping up with administrative paperwork, adapting to seasonal changes in program operation (e.g., from National School Lunch Program to Summer Food Service Program), and providing meals that meet nutrition standards with both appeal and economy. Since March, nutrition service directors have also had to navigate staff safety and cope with procurement problems and uncertain participation rates as schools closed. To top it off, USDA “waiver” flexibilities have been updated numerous times, sometimes at the last minute, at the same time that districts have needed a medley of “reopening” instructional plans.
Advocacy and communication
CSBA was among a number of organizations that advocated for the extension of the waivers with the USDA and Congressional leaders. In addition, frequent communications to member districts about school meal programs helps ensure that all districts take maximum advantage of the USDA’s waiver flexibilities. Some waivers, such as “parent pick up,” may only be implemented if a district submits an application to the California Department of Education. Disseminating information and resources can help districts understand actions they must take. Be sure to read CSBA’s weekly update email for the latest information.

CSBA also supports the communication of innovative and best practices so that all children get the quality meals that many already receive. Throughout California, stand-out districts continue to provide fresh, healthy and often-locally grown food to students. One example is Santa Clara Unified School District, which sends out boxes of produce to schools from its own district farm.

More federal support is needed
Congress should authorize and provide appropriations for universal meals. House Education and Labor Committee Chairman “Bobby” Scott (D-VA) offered the Pandemic Child Hunger Prevention Act to make all students eligible for a nutritious breakfast, lunch and snack, whether in school or by non-congregate options, during the 2020–21 school year. The concept is supported by numerous public health and school advocacy organizations including CSBA, for its benefits to nutrition for all children, including those just above usual eligibility levels, as well as for its reduction in schools’ administrative burden, especially important in a time of economic fluctuation and therefore changing eligibility. Finally, federally funded universal meals would mean that school nutrition programs can remain solvent over the year ahead.

UC Nutrition Policy Institute shares the vision that nutritious and appealing school meals be a part of every school day for every child. With an increased investment in children’s nutrition through universal meals and a higher reimbursement rate, school meals can be rethought to include improved nutrition and appeal, procurement practices that include increased reliance on local and sustainable food sources, less waste, simpler food service administration with lower administrative costs and universal participation, thus, less stigma. A quadruple win: for our children’s social and physical health, for the school environment and learning, for the school nutrition profession and for the environment.

For more from UC Nutrition Policy Institute on school meals during COVID-19, visit

Christina Hecht, PhD, is Senior Policy Advisor for the Nutrition Policy Institute, University of California, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources.