Editor’s note: This text was updated on Nov. 21, 2022, to correct the number of children who receive free or reduced-priced school meals.
When schools announced prolonged pandemic-related closures in 2020, the U.S. government adopted new flexibilities for many federally run school food programs, a critical step for the nearly 30 million children who receive school lunch and 15 million who receive school breakfast free or at a reduced price. Many of these children could have been left food insecure when not physically going to school.
Nationwide, collaborations among states, schools, and community groups helped ensure that students and their families got enough to eat. In Louisiana, for example, a wide range of partners joined together to methodically fight food insecurity.
Federally funded child nutrition programs provide nearly half of the calories that participants consume in a school day. For children in this age group, not having reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food has been linked to negative health outcomes, such as 19% higher rates of asthma, 28% higher rates of depression, and a greater likelihood of delayed medical care and emergency-department use, compared with those who do have access to enough food for healthy living.
During the pandemic, federal policies allowed more flexibility around when and by whom meals were picked up, the duration of the food program (allowing an extension of meal service through summer), how meals were served (in nongroup settings to support physical distancing), and more. Recognizing students’ tremendous need, many state education departments used the federal waivers to support school districts in creating meal distribution programs almost overnight.
For example, Maryland’s Department of Education collaborated with school districts to quickly leverage school system infrastructure, paired with nonprofit support, to get food to children who were not physically in school. They used new distribution sites, deployed school buses, and established home delivery in rural areas. They shared meal preparation resources among nonpublic and private schools and districts, and coordinated with community partners. Publicly available data shows that it only took six to seven weeks from schools closing in mid-March to see an almost 220% increase in weekly breakfast and lunch meals served to children in the state.
Similar efforts were undertaken in school districts in Denver, Colorado; Cleveland, Ohio; Flint, Michigan; Austin, Texas; and Albany, New York, with varying levels of effectiveness. Successful cross-city and cross-sector collaboration, larger supply chain networks with greater buying power, and the ability to address gaps in service for increased-risk populations resulted in more successful approaches to emergency food service policies and programs during the pandemic.
Louisiana’s collaborative approach
Through its Breaking Barriers to Better Health for All initiative, The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Health Impact Project has supported three entities in Louisiana working to advance strategies to ensure out-of-school meals for children: The Louisiana Partnership for Children and Families (LPCF), the Louisiana Department of Education’s (LDOE) Child Nutrition Program, and Share Our Strength (SOS), a national organization working to end childhood hunger and poverty.
The partners have worked to implement promising practices and policies that connect school-based food programs with community-based nonprofit partners to help get food to children outside of school hours and especially during emergency situations, such as the COVID-19 pandemic or other instances that result in extended school closures. They developed work groups on child nutrition programs to remove barriers to their mission, with the goal of ensuring the availability of nearby sites, awareness of open sites, and cultural appropriateness of meals. They also implemented a training series on childhood obesity and created an ongoing community-needs action plan to identify specific stakeholder needs and families most affected by food insecurity. The group’s goal has been to successfully implement community-driven solutions.
At the same time, SOS worked to boost health equity by promoting practices and policies that feed out-of-school children. Organization staff have written a white paper on the promising strategies used in Louisiana to center health equity, such as convening work groups to discuss and develop methods that support food insecure children and families, building partnerships with community leaders, and increasing access to information about resources by translating documents into languages predominant in local communities, such as Spanish. They also collected case studies (with input from the LPCF and LDOE) to showcase Louisiana state efforts on this topic, and hosted a webinar for food and nutrition policymakers and practitioners in Louisiana and elsewhere. The Center for Best Practices at SOS designed the webinar and the dissemination of it to help inform strategies in other states and jurisdictions, based on the lessons learned from Louisiana.
Through centering local and community expertise, increasing access to information and programs, and focusing on collaboration, inclusivity, and intersectionality, Louisiana officials hope to be better prepared to equitably reduce missed meals for students when school is not in session and to increase child food security more broadly.
Mimi Majumdar Narayan works on The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Health Impact Project.