Beyond School Walls: How Federal, State and Local Entities are Adapting Policies to Ensure Student Access to Healthy Meals During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Over half of all students in elementary and secondary schools across the country depend on the National School Lunch Program for a healthy mid-day meal, and 12.5 million students participate in the School Breakfast Program.

As the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools during the spring of 2020, these students were at risk of not having enough to eat. Waivers allowing program flexibility helped ensure students didn't go hungry and should stay in place until the pandemic is fully controlled.

This TFAH policy brief, Beyond School Walls: How Federal, State and Local Entities are Adapting Policies to Ensure Student Access to Healthy Meals During the COVID-19 Pandemic, reviews steps the federal and state governments have taken to ensure students’ access to healthy meals when schools are closed and what needs to be done to ensure continued meal access as all school systems face uncertainties about how to safely reopen for the 2020-2021 school year.

In March 2020, schools across the country began closing to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus. In response, and recognizing the important source of nutrition school-based meals were to millions of American children, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service began approving nationwide waivers to provide school systems flexibility in how meals were provided to students.  For example, these waivers enable schools to serve meals in non-congregate settings and outside of standard mealtimes, serve afterschool snacks and meals outside of structured environments and waive requirements that students be present when meals are picked up.

“School meal programs are the most important source of nutritious food for millions of American children. To the degree possible, school systems should, with financial and regulatory relief from the federal government, continue to be innovative about how to deliver meals to students and should strive to meet or exceed federal nutrition standards for these meals despite product shortages created by the pandemic,” said Adam Lustig, Project Manager at Trust for America’s Health and the brief’s author.

Due to the economic impact the pandemic has had on millions of American families and the numerous uncertainties about how to safely re-open schools, the currently in place program waivers should be extended through the summer and may need to be kept in place during the 2020–2021 school year, the brief says.

Many of the states hardest hit by COVID-19 also have the highest school meal programs participation rates

States with some of the highest rates of COVID-19 infections also have high percentages of students who depend on school meals for much of their nutrition. States in which both COVID-19 infection rates are above national medians and school meals program enrollment are high include Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina.

States in which more than half of students are enrolled in school-meals programs are:

Percentage of students enrolled in school meal programs

D.C.                                        76.4%

Mississippi                          75.0%

New Mexico                      71.4%

South Carolina                   67.0%

Arkansas                             63.6%

Louisiana                             63.0%

Oklahoma                           62.5%

Georgia                               62.0%

Nevada                                60.8%

Kentucky                             58.7%

California                            58.1%

Florida                                 58.1%

Arizona                                57.0%

Missouri                               52.7%

New York                             52.6%

Illinois                                  50.2%

Alabama                              51.6%

Oregon                                 50.5%

Hunger, poor nutrition and food insecurity can increase a child’s risk of developing a range of physical, mental, behavioral, emotional, and learning problems. Hungry children also get sick more often and are more likely to be hospitalized. Maintaining children’s access to nutritious meals despite school closures not only ensure they do not go hungry, but also promotes children’s health.


School Nutrition Policy Brief – full text