The COVID-19 pandemic has put millions of children and young people at greater risk for hunger and poor nutrition. Limited access to enough healthy food can increase children’s risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and other chronic diseases. Obesity in turn can contribute to more severe consequences from COVID-19.
Three key federal nutrition programs together helped to feed tens of millions of children prior to and during the COVID-19 pandemic:
- the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP);
- Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC); and
- National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs.
Learn more about these key policies below, and see recommendations for action from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Research shows kids and families rely on SNAP
Recommendations for Strengthening SNAP
- Raise the maximum SNAP benefit level by 15 percent per participant for the duration of the economic downturn.
- Remove the 3-month time limit on SNAP benefits for unemployed adults who are not raising children under the age of 18 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.
- The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) should simplify the process for states to distribute benefits through the Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT) program.
Additionally, the Foundation recommends that the following actions can maintain and strengthen SNAP in the longer term:
- 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.
Research shows school meals help kids grow up healthy
Recommendations for Improving Access to Healthy School Meals and Snacks
- USDA should support states in using existing waivers to serve free meals to all students through the end of FY 2021, as recently authorized by Congress.
- USDA should reconsider the rule it proposed in January 2020 that would weaken school nutrition standards and adversely affect student health and academic performance.
- Maintain nutrition standards for school meals that were in effect prior to USDA’s final rule from December 2018 (for whole grains/sodium/milk), and current nutrition standards for school snacks.
- Continue to implement and expand the Community Eligibility Provision that allows schools in high-poverty areas to serve free meals to all students, regardless of family income.
- States should implement nutrition standards that strengthen the federal standards.
- USDA should expand guidance and technical assistance to support schools in meeting updated nutrition standards and managing new school kitchen equipment.
Research shows WIC help mothers afford healthy foods for their babies
Recommendations for Strengthening WIC
In response to the pandemic:
- USDA and Congress should ensure that the relevant waivers remain in place for as long as needed and that states and WIC offices have the technical support they need to continue to serve families.
- Congress should increase WIC funding to extend eligibility to postpartum mothers through the first two years after the birth of a baby, and to children through the age of 6 to align with participation in school meal programs, and should enable infants and children to participate for two years before having to reapply.
- Policymakers should work to increase racial equity in WIC participation, including making WIC packages more culturally inclusive, providing targeted support based on health disparities, and providing breastfeeding support that is inclusive and relevant for women of color who participate in WIC.
- Congress should fund the WIC Breastfeeding Peer Counseling Program at its full authorized amount of $90 million to ensure mothers have access to critical supports.
- Congress should continue to support and fund efforts to streamline and modernize WIC services through technology, including achieving the Congressional mandate for all states to achieve WIC Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT).
- USDA is required by Congress to update the WIC food package every 10 years. As it does so, USDA should ensure that the process is grounded in the latest, most sound nutritional science.
- The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services should continue to support and reimburse WIC for its role in lead screening.
How SNAP, School Meals and WIC programs are helping families during the pandemic
Learn more about the critical support SNAP provides to families and individuals across the country, including firsthand accounts from program participants.
Innovative Heroes, Ensuring No Child or Family Goes Hungry During COVID-19
When COVID-19 hit, these school nutrition professionals showed up strong to help provide healthy foods to children and families. Read their inspirational stories.
WIC: Virtual Services and Partnerships Address Nutrition Needs and More
Learn how the WIC program at St. Joseph’s Health in Paterson, New Jersey, has changed its practices in several important ways to help kids and families during the COVID-19 pandemic.