The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the closures of schools and child care centers—a main source of daily meals for tens of millions of children—putting many at risk for hunger and poor nutrition. This reality, compounded by unemployment, loss of income, and continued high expenses for housing and food, means many more families are unable to afford enough food to support their children’s health.
Today, nearly 14 million children are not consistently getting enough to eat, according to a report from the Brookings Institution, based on U.S. Census Bureau data. That number is 2.7 times higher than it was at the peak of the Great Recession in 2008.
Three key federal nutrition programs together helped to feed tens of millions of children prior to the 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. Each of these programs was impacted by federal relief packages, including the Family First Coronavirus Response Act and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, but critical gaps remain.
As Congress considers additional legislation to respond to the pandemic and throughout recovery, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation recommends strengthening key federal nutrition programs to prevent hunger and even larger increases in poverty.
In response to the pandemic, federal relief laws provide funding to help meet the dramatic rise in new SNAP caseloads among Americans due to losses of jobs and income; temporarily suspend SNAP’s work requirements, allowing states to request emergency benefits (special waivers) for existing SNAP participants; and provide emergency assistance to existing SNAP households to help cover meals that children normally get for free during school while schools remain closed. To date, the federal relief laws do not raise minimum or maximum SNAP benefits or expand eligibility for the program.
Recommendations for Strengthening SNAP
- 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 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 kids and families rely on SNAP
SNAP Supports Health and Boosts the Economy
A summary of evidence showing that SNAP reduces poverty, improves the economy, improves food security, boosts children’s health and academic performance, and encourages healthier eating.
Increase SNAP Benefits, Stabilize the Economy
The brief from Healthy Eating Research demonstrates that increasing SNAP benefits during the pandemic could help stabilize the economy, and reduce poverty and food insecurity.
Buying Groceries Online Puts SNAP Participants At Risk
A pilot program designed to help Americans enrolled in SNAP buy groceries online exposes them to a loss of their privacy through “increased data collection and surveillance.”
School Meals and Snacks
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 began to serve meals outside of schools, which would normally be prohibited. 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.
Recommendations for Improving Access to Healthy School Meals and Snacks
- USDA should allow schools to serve free meals to every student during the coming school year (e.g., universal free school meals) and Congress should appropriate any necessary additional funding to cover the full cost of all meals served.
- Maintain nutrition standards for school meals that were in effect prior to USDA’s final rule from December 2018 (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 school meals help kids grow up healthy
Healthier School Meals Reduce Obesity Risk
Healthier nutrition standards for school meals are associated with a significant decrease in the risk for obesity among children living in poverty.
Serving School Meals in Challenging Times
Schools nationwide continue to serve healthy meals during the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of kids rely on school meals as their primary source of nutrition.
USDA’s Latest School Meals Proposal
Richard Besser, MD, president and CEO of RWJF, comments USDA’s latest proposal would make meals less healthy over time and calls it “the exact opposite of what our children need and deserve.”
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.
Recommendations for Strengthening WIC
- 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.
- 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) by 2020.
- USDA should maintain the scientific integrity of the WIC food package process as USDA undertakes the Congressionally mandated 10-year cycle revision.
- The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services should continue to support and reimburse WIC for its role in lead screening.
Changes to WIC are helping families during the pandemic
Strengthening WIC’s Impact During and After the Pandemic
Healthy Eating Research published a brief examining WIC’s benefits and recommends changes to support WIC enrollment and the health of participants.
WIC Programs Shift in Response to Pandemic
In Paterson, N.J., the St. Joseph’s WIC program office is finding new ways to provide participants with healthy food options and referrals to other community resources.
Supporting Health in Early Childhood During COVID-19
We spoke to the National WIC Association and Food Research & Action Center to better understand how WIC is responding to the pandemic.