Lessons Learned from the Pandemic: Implementing Systems Change Can End Child Hunger

We were not prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic to hit and shut down most of the country in March 2020. It was a once-in-a-lifetime event that we are still trying to make our way through. We didn’t have the healthcare capacity for the 120 million people who became infected with COVID-19. We didn’t have the infrastructure in place to support small businesses that closed. We didn’t have the level of services needed to support displaced workers and those in the gig economy. We didn’t have the ability to provide services to the large number of people who found themselves needing help with basic human necessities like food. Least prepared for such a catastrophic disaster were those who are consistently excluded and underserved, living in poverty and those living on the margins of poverty.

It became clear to those of us who worked with the public that food was an immediate need. Early in the pandemic, I worked in local government, and a large part of my work was working with marginalized communities to provide resources and information. When everything shut down, we began to receive variations on the question: “Where can I get food for my children?” Families who had hours cut or who had lost their jobs could only focus on the most basic necessities to keep their families safe. There is nothing more important or vital than food.

Many stories in the media focused on food banks and charitable organizations that were giving out food. Stories about federal and state hunger programs went unnoticed. The most widely spread image of this phenomenon was the thousands of cars that had lined up for miles last summer for food distribution in Dallas.

Charities and food banks play an important role in reducing hunger. It is important to note however, that our federal programs play a much larger role. Feeding America, the largest hunger-relief organization in the U.S. recognizes the importance of federal food programs in reducing hunger, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). As they note on their website, for every meal they provide through their network of 200 food banks and 60,000 meal programs, SNAP provides 9. This clearly demonstrates that hunger is not an issue that charities alone can solve.

SNAP is not due to be reevaluated until 2023, when the Farm Bill is up for renewal. This year Congress has the opportunity to apply lessons learned from the pandemic and to put in place positive changes to the majority of the food programs in the next several weeks. The Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act (CNR) is up for renewal. It is the major funding source for all federal school meal and most child nutrition programs.

The CNR is the process of making changes to the permanent statutes that authorize the child nutrition programs and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and other related programs. Although most programs are permanently authorized, Congress can improve the laws governing these programs every five years. This year is especially important as the pandemic has shown us where we need changes.

Changes from the CNR amends two major statutes: The Richard B. Russell National School Act, signed by President Truman in 1946, which created the National School Lunch Program; and the Child Nutrition Act of 1966 signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, which established the school Breakfast Program. Later changes to these laws added more programs. They also created the budgetary provisions that allow for many of the programs to continue even while there is no reauthorization of the CNR. But some pilot programs and temporary activities have expired.

We are currently working under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 because, when it expired in 2015, Congress failed to renew it. The 2010 bill expanded the availability of nutritious meals to more children in school, in afterschool and summer programs, and in childcare. It improved the quality of nutritious meals served in schools and preschools. It also simplified much of the application process for parents.

The programs that fall under the CNR benefit millions of children, especially kids living in homes with limited income; and they allow schools, afterschool and summer programs, and childcare providers to provide nutritious food to hungry children and not have to spend program funds on those meals.

We know that foods insecurity has grown through the pandemic and that lack of access to nutrient rich foods disproportionately impacted children from Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) families. Our best data shows that in Arkansas, BIPOC children experienced hunger at more than twice their White counterparts during the height of the pandemic. By continuing or expanding existing programs we can address childhood hunger.

The School Breakfast Program and National School Lunch Program

Together these important programs are known as the Free and/or Reduced School Meals programs. All children who attend public schools are eligible to participate in these programs, but low-income children generally must complete a form and receive certification to receive free or reduced-price meals. These programs are critically important because a large percentage of children receive meals at school. When the schools shut down in March 2020, alternatives had to be found to make sure children could be fed.

Together these programs represent $14 billion in federal funding for child nutrition. Nationwide 21 million lunches and 11.5 million breakfasts are served on average, daily. We do not have a specific breakdown for breakfast vs. lunch in Arkansas, but we know that in 2019, nearly 311,000 children in the state received free or reduced lunch and/or breakfast.

The most important thing Congress can do is allow all schools to provide school meals free to all children. This will reduce the currently substantial administrative burden on schools, reduce stigma for children receiving the benefit, and increase participation so that more students can get the benefits, which include improved academic achievement, health, and behavior.

Congress should also invest in Community Eligibility to increase the amount schools receive per meal and allow more high-poverty schools to be able to offer all children free meals. Community Eligibility allows schools in the highest poverty areas to offer free breakfast and lunch to all children without having to collect individual household applications. This substantially reduces administrative costs and increases program participation.

Another simple fix is to allow children to be directly certified without an application, if they receive Medicaid. Again, this approach reduces administrative costs and increases participation because children who qualify for Medicaid will qualify for free meals, but their parents will only need to fill out one application.

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

This program is commonly referred to as WIC, and it provides nutritious foods, nutrition education, and access to healthcare for low-income pregnant women, new mothers, infants, and children up to age 5. WIC also includes food packages that, in Arkansas, have the following approved foods depending on age: cereal, whole grains, eggs, milk or soy alternatives, cheese, yogurt, fruit or vegetable juice, beans, peanut butter, fresh and/or frozen fruits and vegetables, formula, etc. In 2020, 6.3 million women, infants, and children nationwide participated in WIC.

Unfortunately, the share of eligible families participating in WIC has declined over the past 10 years and even further during the pandemic. Arkansas saw the sharpest decline of 21% from February 2020 through February 2021, while at the same time Medicaid participation increased by 11% and SNAP by 3%. This gap in services may be due to Arkansas’s fully in-person application process which, prior to the pandemic, required that applicants go in person to an office to apply. The gap may also be due to the failure to educate the public fully about the benefits of the program.

Congress should make permanent the flexibilities implemented due to the pandemic that allowed for remote enrollment instead of in-person. This modification allowed parents to enroll and complete education appointments from a convenient location, at a convenient time, over the phone. It also allowed for remote benefit issuance.

We should eliminate in-person appointments as much as possible by coordinating between WIC offices and doctor’s offices, allowing the release of information such as height and weight normally taken at doctor visits to be shared and not requiring unnecessary office visits.

In order to increase utilization of WIC, Congress should fund comprehensive WIC outreach and coordination. This includes establishing a WIC community partners program patterned off the successful SNAP outreach program, which helps reach more eligible participants where they already are. In addition, it should include the extension of WIC certification periods to two years for women and for children up to 6 years old to support the health of both mothers and children. This extension would help with retention of families within WIC as well as allowing time to transition out of services.

Finally, WIC food packages should be consistent with the current dietary guidelines for Americans. SNAP benefits recently increased because of increases made to the Thrifty Food Plan. Similar assessment of WIC food packages needs to be conducted to include increasing the value of the fruit and vegetable benefits and investing significantly in the children’s package.

Summer EBT

Millions of low-income families count on schools and afterschool and summer programs to provide their children with some or all of their meals. When schools abruptly shut down in March 2020, pivots had to be made to ensure that children would be able to access meals. This continued throughout the summer, as programs remained closed in 2020 and 2021.

Pandemic EBT (P-EBT) was the primary solution that attempted to address this gap. P-EBT provided a temporary emergency nutrition benefit that was loaded on an Electronic Benefits Card. Children qualified for P-EBT if they were already receiving SNAP benefits or if they were enrolled in a public school and they were enrolled in Free and/or Reduced Meals at that school during the year. Benefits were provided to children during the summer and for any period in which the school was closed or operating under reduced hours for at least five consecutive days.P-EBT should be expanded year-round when schools are closed as a complimentary approach to Summer Nutrition Programs. This would allow parents to receive a benefit on a debit card to purchase food during the spring, summer, and winter breaks, as well as when schools have been closed. Evaluations of the programs show that it has been successful in minimizing food insecurity.

The most important thing that Congress can do to reduce food insecurity for families is to understand that hunger is a layered and multifaceted problem. It requires attention to multiple solutions that are targeted to address childhood hunger. By improving access and expanding programs, we can ensure that families don’t have to face hunger on a continuing basis.