As many as 1 in 6 kids struggle with a lack of access to food. A serious issue prior to the pandemic, food insecurity in schools has only gotten worse since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Disparities in access to food still exist along racial lines, with 18% of Black households and 16% of Latino households, as opposed to 10% of all households, reporting food insufficiency during early summer 2021. As this school year gets underway, it’s important to remember that hunger is a fundamental issue that impacts all aspects of a student’s experience in school — including their ability to learn. Research points to the link between food insecurity and lower math achievement in kindergarten, and lower math and reading gains from kindergarten to third grade.

As students start the year, ensuring access to food is critical; and there are unprecedented resources to help. This year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it will reimburse schools and child care centers for providing free meals to all students this school year. In addition to all students having access to school meals, families have access to the Pandemic-Electronic Benefit Transfer Program (P-EBT), which allows families to directly receive financial assistance for food when children are not in school. Beginning in October, families who receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) will see an increase. While a welcome relief, these efforts alone cannot end food insecurity and eliminate the racial divide in access to nutritious food.

School and district leaders must:

  • Communicate with students, parents, and families about free school meals. School leaders should ensure that families know about the nutrition benefits that are available to them. This means highlighting that ALL families are eligible for free school meals this year. In addition, school and district leaders must inform parents and families both about opportunities to access meals and about how healthy school meals are.
  • Communicate with students, parents, and families about P-EBT. School and district leaders must ensure that families know about P-EBT benefits in the case that schools are closed, or if students are in hybrid or virtual settings due to quarantine or policy changes. Families should know to save their P-EBT cards if they received them previously and look for them in the mail if they are newly eligible. In addition, school administrators should verify student addresses and maintain clean lists to assist in the distribution of P-EBT benefits.
  • Establish policies that reject lunch-shaming in all forms. About a third of eligible students choose to skip lunch altogether to avoid being bullied by peers for receiving free meals. School leaders who are on the ground must work to end the stigmatization of students who qualify for free breakfast, lunch, or afterschool snacks and should take advantage of this opportunity — while the USDA is making free school meals available to all — to reset their policies and stop the shaming of students who received free and reduced-price meals once and for all. For example, one way school leaders might do this is to ensure that these students do not have to use a separate lunch line or receive a different meal if they have an outstanding lunch debt.

District leaders must also:

  • Provide clear guidance for schools about how students in quarantine can access food and benefits. While P-EBT guidance is clear that students will receive P-EBT benefits in the event of school closures, the guidance is less clear on what should happen if individual classrooms or groups of students must quarantine. In this event, it is critical that students continue receiving P-EBT benefits, as they may not otherwise have access to food. District leaders should also ensure that attendance records signify whether students are in-person or virtual to help track who should receive P-EBT benefits.
  • Develop and implement plans to get meals to students in the event of school closures or virtual learning. During school shutdowns last year, schools, food pantries, and other community organizations worked together to ensure that students and their families had their needs met. For example, the Oakland Unified School District staff, with the help of local organizations, mobilized hundreds of volunteers, many of them parents, to deliver food each week to homes and distribution sites and help families sign up for meals. Volunteers also gave out boxes of fresh produce, diapers, pet food, and hygiene products. In St. Paul, Minnesota, schools partnered with school bus drivers to deliver weekly supplies of breakfasts and lunches to students and their families. District leaders must ensure that they are still working across sectors to make meals accessible to students and their families.

There is room to celebrate the strides being made in improving access to adequate nutrition for students and their families. For example, early data indicates that the Child Tax Credit is helping to reduce food insufficiency across our country. But we cannot lose momentum. Let’s make sure that every student, especially those who are already hardest hit by COVID-19, has their most basic needs met.