Current State of Child Nutrition in COVID-19 Pandemic Relief

Man organizing food in food bank.
Photo by Jason Paige Smith/Getty Images for Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the deaths of more than 100,000 people in the United States, and altered everyone’s lives in dramatic ways. Due to statewide ‘stay-at-home’ orders across the country, millions of families have been forced into a “new normal” lifestyle of social distancing in order to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. The closures of schools and child care centers—a main source of daily meals for many children before the pandemic—have made it difficult for families to feed their children. This reality, compounded by unemployment, loss of income, and continued high expenses for housing and food, has led to an increase in the number of people facing food insecurity.

In March, the federal government responded to the pandemic by providing billions of dollars in funding through several relief packages, including the Family First Coronavirus Response Act and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, to prevent hunger and help ensure that children and families have access to healthy, affordable food. As a result, federal nutrition programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC); and National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs, have become even more essential to the health and well-being of children and families. 

The laws include a few broad changes to SNAP. SNAP’s work requirements were temporarily suspended, allowing states to request emergency benefits (special waivers) from the Secretary of Agriculture for existing SNAP participants, and provide emergency assistance to existing SNAP households—up to the maximum monthly allotment—to help cover meals that children normally get for free during school while schools remain closed. The legislation also includes over $15.5 billion in additional funding for SNAP to cover some of the waiver authorities and increases in participation of families applying to SNAP for the first time.

More than 55 million students across the country have been impacted by school closures. In response, schools have had to change not just the way they teach but also how they provide meals to students. The COVID-19 relief measures enabled the Secretary of Agriculture to issue nationwide school meal waivers, eliminating paperwork for states, and helping more schools quickly adopt flexible strategies for feeding students. Immediately, schools and community distribution sites begin serving meals outside of schools, which would normally be prohibited.

Serving School Meals in Challenging Times

Read the earlier story about how school nutrition professionals, the unexpected first responders, are combating hunger and providing nutritious food to kids nationwide.

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Additionally, as part of The Emergency Food Assistance Program, $400 million was distributed to assist local food banks in meeting increased demand, including from families with children who normally receive meals at school. 

The Family First Coronavirus Response Act provided $500 million in funding to enable WIC to improve access to nutritious foods among pregnant women with low incomes, or for mothers with young children who lost their jobs or were laid off due to the COVID-19 pandemic. States also now are able to waive some of the requirements that are typically part of WIC, such as the requirement to apply in person and the minimum stocking requirements for participating providers.  

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) works to ensure that everyone has a fair and just opportunity for health and well-being. During this health crisis, RWJF President and CEO Richard Besser, MD, has stressed the value of proper nutrition and the necessity of children receive daily healthy meals through the pandemic. 

“Each day, more than 30 million children rely on meals served via the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program. Students depend on school meals to keep them healthy and to give them a better chance at succeeding in the classroom. These meals are more than simply a convenience; they are a lifeline.”

RWJF President & CEO, Dr. Richard Besser

Particularly for young kids, food is fuel for their development—their developing bodies as well as their developing minds. According to a number of studies, kids who don’t go hungry—who are food secure—are both able to be more physically present at school, but also mentally present. 

“Nearly three-quarters of students who participate in these programs qualify for free or reduced-price meals based on their families’ income levels. With one out of three children and adolescents aged 2 to 19 years having obesity or being overweight, and children consuming up to 50 percent of their daily calories at school, the quality of school meals can go a long way towards children’s overall well-being,” said Besser.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues and the need for daily meals increases, the importance of food insecurity has taken on a new urgency. The Foundation makes the following recommendations regarding SNAP, in order to prevent hunger and even larger increases in poverty:

  • Raise the maximum SNAP benefit level by 15 percent for the duration of the economic downturn.
  • Remove the 3-month time limit on SNAP benefits for unemployed adults who are not raising minor children for the duration of the economic downturn.
  • Stop implementation of new regulatory changes that would decrease SNAP benefits or take SNAP benefits away from 4 million people.
  • For states, implement the various strategies that Congress has authorized for increasing SNAP benefits and streamlining eligibility and enrollment rules.

Additionally, the Foundation recommends that longer term of the following actions can maintain and strengthen SNAP and its impact:

  • Increase SNAP benefits by 20 percent to enhance anti-hunger and anti-poverty effects while reforming the underlying system of calculating food costs and benefit amounts.
  • Avoid funding cuts and eligibility restrictions that would reduce enrollment and/or benefit levels.
  • Double investments in SNAP-Ed (the Supplemental Nutrition Education Program-Education) and financial incentive programs to encourage SNAP participants to purchase more fruits and vegetables and help them make healthier purchases.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the nation’s largest nutrition assistance program, helping feed approximately 40 million Americans each month, 44% of whom are children.

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Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)

WIC is one of the nation’s largest federal nutrition programs, serving approximately 6.3 million people, including about half of all infants born in the United States.

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School Meals and Snacks

Nationwide more than 30 million children participate in the National School Lunch Program and nearly 15 million participate in the School Breakfast Program. Learn more about the updated nutrition standards and recent comments from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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