COVID-19 School Closures and the National School Lunch Program
February 25, 2021 by Ezra Tanen
by Lori Purvis
As the COVID-19 pandemic swept the country last spring, K-12 school districts shut down. By March 16, 2020, 50% of K-12 students had been impacted by school closures, and by May 6, 2020, forty-eight states had closed their schools for the remainder of the academic year. Closing schools not only affects students’ education, but also the provision of food to children through government-subsidized lunches. Nearly 30 million children receive free or subsidized lunch through the National School Lunch Program each year. Children are eligible for free or subsidized lunch if they belong to a household living below 130% of the poverty line, or if their family participates in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.
During school closures, schools around the country tried to continue to distribute free lunches to their students. Some schools, in major metropolitan area school districts, distributed meals at designated school sites on certain days and times. However, this model did not work for every child, and the problems surrounding meal distribution were especially evident in low-income communities. Lisa Davis, the senior vice president of the No Kid Hungry Campaign, notes that some children would not have access to these school-based food distribution sites, such as “children staying with grandparents who are isolating themselves, or those with parents who work low-wage, hourly jobs with no time off and no option to work from home or drive to schools to pick up meals.”
A few schools, in cities such as New York, Atlanta, and other metropolitan areas, were able to tackle this issue by alternative distribution models, such as sending food out into neighborhoods on school busses. Under this arrangement, children would only have to walk to their bus stop to retrieve their meals. Additionally, the federal government passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which outlined state programs that could be used to address students’ needs during the pandemic. The act allowed for flexibility in established child nutrition programs allowing, among other changes, the provision of non-congregate meals, the waiver of meal pattern requirements in child nutrition programs, and the combination of operations from multiple entities to serve meals at summer feeding sites.
In June 2020, the Federal Emergency Management Agency released a guide titled “Best Practice Information: Food Assistance Programs for Low-Income Households with School-Age Children”. This guide provided “Potential Best Practices” based off of the successes and failures of programs that had been implemented in Spring 2020, including using summertime approaches for meal services, creating websites where families can find nearby free meals for their children, assembling weekend food bags, and delivering meals directly to children’s homes in rural areas.
Despite these efforts, many students did not have access to the meals that they would normally receive at school during the closures. In the School Nutrition Association’s survey of 1,894 school districts, 3.3% of school districts stated that they did not provide any meals or food assistance during COVID-19 closures. An additional 1.7% stated that they were providing meals at one point, but they stopped distribution for a variety of reasons, including concern for the health and safety of their staff and students. Of the schools that did provide meals, 80.1% reported that they were serving fewer meals than they did when schools were open, and 23% of schools reported that they were serving 75-100% fewer meals than before the COVID-19 closure. This means that a large percentage of students who were receiving free lunches during the school year did not receive meals from the distribution centers in these districts during school closures.
During the 2020-2021 school year, school districts across the country have varied widely in their approach to learning, and many schools have changed their plans as COVID-19 cases increased. Of the 20 largest school districts, 17 began the school year fully remote. Both Los Angeles Unified School District and Chicago Public Schools (“CPS”) provided meals to students at “Grab & Go Food Centers” throughout Summer 2020, and continued to do so throughout their school closures in the fall. In Chicago, meal kits are offered to anyone age 18 and younger, and they include 3 breakfast meals and 3 lunches. Children do not have to be present to collect the kits, and there are over 270 locations throughout the city that are open between 9:00am-1:00pm Monday-Friday and can be located on the CPS website.
Having a variety of distribution centers, including multiple meals in one kit, and not requiring each student to be present at distribution centers may help to mitigate some of the distribution issues that schools faced during the Spring 2020 closures. However, it remains unclear whether this was enough to ensure that the majority of students who were receiving free lunch in school continue to do so during the closures. Additionally, as each school district is taking a different approach to learning, the lengths of closures and the procedures used to distribute free lunches during those closures, will vary across the country.
 Stacey Decker et al., The Coronavirus Spring: The Historic Closing of U.S. Schools, Educ. Weekly (July 1, 2020), https://www.edweek.org/ew/section/multimedia/the-coronavirus-spring-the-historic-closing-of.html.
 School Breakfast Program, United States Dept. of Agric. Econ. Research Serv. (last visited Aug. 13, 2020), https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/child-nutrition-programs/school-breakfast-program/.
 The National School Lunch Program (NSLP), Feeding America (last visited Aug. 13, 2020), https://www.feedingamerica.org/take-action/advocate/federal-hunger-relief-programs/national-school-lunch-program.
 Corey Turner & Anya Kamenetz, Schools Race to Feed Students Amid Coronavirus Closures, Nat’l Pub. Radio (March 20, 2020, 3:55 PM), https://www.npr.org/2020/03/20/818300504/schools-race-to-feed-students-amid-coronavirus-closures.
 See Id.
 See Id.
 Families First Coronavirus Response Act, Pub. L. No. 116-127, 117 Stat. 134 (2020).
 Families First Coronavirus Response Act (H.R. 6201) FAQ, Council of Sch. Attorneys (last visited Aug 13, 2020), https://www.nsba.org/-/media/NSBA/File/cosa-families-first-coronavirus-response-act-faq-march-3-2020.pdf.
 COVID-19 Best Practice Information: Food Assistance Programs for Low-Income Households with School-Age Children, Fed. Emergency Mgmt. Agency (last visited Aug. 13, 2020), https://www.fema.gov/sites/default/files/2020-07/fema_covid_bp_food-assistance-schoolage-children.pdf.
 Impact of COVID-19 on School Nutrition Programs: Part 2, Sch. Nutrition Ass’n (last visited Aug. 13, 2020), https://schoolnutrition.org/uploadedFiles/11COVID-19/3_Webinar_Series_and_Other_Resources/COVID-19-Impact-on-School-Nutriction-Programs-Part2.pdf.
 Laura Meckler et al., Chaos Coast to Coast as a School Year Like No Other Launches, The Wash. Post (Aug. 9, 2020, 5:58 PM), https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/schools-colleges-covid-reopen/2020/08/09/44a78044-d826-11ea-930e-d88518c57dcc_story.html.
 CPS Meal Sites, Chicago Pub. Sch. (last visited Aug 13, 2020), https://www.cps.edu/school-reopening-2020/cps-meal-sites/ (providing information regarding free meals for Chicago Public Schools); Free Meals at Grab & Go Food Centers, Los Angeles Unified Sch. District (last visited Aug 13, 2020), https://achieve.lausd.net/resources (providing information regarding free meals for Los Angeles Unified School District);.
 CPS Meal Sites, Chicago Pub. Sch. (last visited Aug 13, 2020), https://www.cps.edu/school-reopening-2020/cps-meal-sites/.