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Supporting Child Nutrition During the Pandemic

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

  • Continue higher SNAP benefits (at least 15 percent) and federal support for state administrative costs.
  • Ensure that the lowest-income households are eligible for emergency SNAP allotments.
  • To supplement SNAP, continue Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (Pandemic-EBT) through the summer and into the new school year as needed, which provides money for families with low incomes and millions of children missing meals due to school and child care closures.
  • Continue to suspend SNAP work requirements for adults under age 50 without children.

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

  • Increase SNAP benefits by at least 20 percent from pre-pandemic levels to enhance anti-hunger and anti-poverty effects while updating the underlying system for calculating benefits to ensure that they cover food costs in specific communities for all participants. 
  • Expand availability of resources to support healthier food purchases, including SNAP-Ed (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education) and other financial incentive programs, to enable SNAP participants to purchase more fruits and vegetables.
  • Streamline eligibility and enrollment processes and focus enrollment efforts on communities with low participation, including immigrants, people of color and rural residents.
  • Roll back harmful regulations that would limit access to SNAP benefits including the public charge rule and proposed restrictions on the ability of states to waive work requirements for childless adults and narrowing of broad based categorical eligibility.
  • Broaden SNAP eligibility to cover more college students, unemployed adults without children, and lawfully residing immigrants.

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.

Longer Term:

  • 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.

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