Addressing Baby Starvation When Faculty Is Closed — Concerns through the Pandemic and Past

The Covid-19 pandemic has knocked hunger out of the shadows in the USA. Record numbers of Americans, including one in four families with school-age children, lack reliable access to food.1 Congress has approved several innovative programs and substantial resources to respond to this crisis. Despite these efforts, food insecurity – a long-standing problem that puts children of skin color and disproportionately at risk of physical, cognitive and emotional harm in households below the federal poverty line – remains an important issue. Key drivers of rising food insecurity include school closings, transitions to hybrid learning and the interruption of extracurricular programs that have limited children’s access to the food sources they relied on during the school week. While policy attention is focused on strengthening the food safety net to aid recovery from pandemics, it is important to consider whether children’s nutritional needs are being met during the week and where there are gaps both during the pandemic and beyond can.

Overview of the largest USDA child nutrition programs.

Prior to the pandemic, the federal food security network comprised five major programs by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to alleviate child hunger. Overall, these programs accounted for federal spending of $ 86.3 billion in 2019 (see table). Three of these programs support meals offered in the educational setting: the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), the School Breakfast Program (SBP), and the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP). The other two programs offer benefits designed to complement the purchase of foods that children consume at home: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). Participation in these programs helps reduce food insecurity. However, more could be done to fill gaps in children’s access to healthy meals, especially during weekends and class breaks.

Covid-19 has exposed the problems associated with relying largely on education and fortification settings as the primary delivery channels for food security programs. To feed the 30 million children who do not have access to meals during school closings and hybrid learning phases, Congress authorized the USDA to approve exemptions that support innovative approaches organized by schools, daycare centers, nonprofit food organizations, government agencies and other partners become organizations.

Perhaps the most comprehensive approach to feeding children during the pandemic has been the P-EBT (Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer) program. This program provided families with children who were entitled to free or discounted meals in the spring of 2020, funds equivalent to the cost of meals that would otherwise have been consumed in school. Congress extended this program for the 2020–2021 school year and expanded it to include children in day care centers. There is evidence that P-EBT relieved hunger for 3 million children when schools closed at the start of the pandemic.2 P-EBT benefits cover the cost of meals on weekdays during the school year, but not the cost for meals that are consumed on weekends or in class is broken.

Congress also incorporated SNAP emergency benefits into the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. This policy allowed states to temporarily increase SNAP benefits to the maximum amount for all current beneficiaries ($ 680 per month for a family of four). It didn’t help the 40% of SNAP participants who were already getting the maximum benefit. The economic relief approved in December as part of the funding for fiscal 2021 included an increase in the monthly maximum benefit of 15% (equivalent to around USD 100 for a family of four) for 6 months. SNAP is considered the first line of defense against hunger. The program reaches more than 40 million Americans and provides food aid directly to households. Half of the households participating in SNAP are children.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act provided for incentive testing for eligible households ($ 1,200 per adult and $ 500 per child). However, fewer black and Hispanic adults than white adults report that their households received checks.3 The latest stimulus package included a second round of checks, this time for $ 600 for each eligible adult and child.

In addition, nonprofit food networks and anti-fungal organizations have adopted strategies to safely distribute food through home deliveries and deliveries to specific locations to meet increased demand. These efforts have been particularly important for children who are not eligible for, or have been admitted to, other federal nutritional assistance, and in the context of recent restrictive immigration policies that have appalled participation in public programs

There are gaps in children’s nutrition. Much of the political effort before and during the pandemic has centered on weekday meals, which has left millions of children hungry when schools are empty. And despite significant political advances, high levels of food insecurity among families1 suggest that recent efforts have been inadequate.

An important limitation is the level of the SNAP benefit, which has been widely recognized as insufficient. Rising food prices over the past year and the loss of access to other reliable food sources (e.g. free school meals) and financial resources (e.g. due to job losses) have also resulted in limited SNAP benefits during the Year have to extend further than usual pandemic.

A second caveat is that patchwork efforts to feed children on weekends and during class breaks do not reach all children. Prior to Covid-19, nonprofit food networks and anti-fungal organizations were the main providers of weekend pack programs that provide income-eligible children with groceries on Fridays during the school year. However, there is a lack of data on the number of weekend backpack programs that existed before the pandemic and the number that are still in operation. The CACFP Endangered Afterschool Meals Program reimburses eligible organizations that provide meals to children after school or on weekends or breaks during the school year. To help increase food security on weekends amid the pandemic, the USDA has issued exemptions that give schools and child-centered organizations flexibility in how meals are provided on weekends and during class breaks. During the 2020 spring and summer vacation, sites that participated in NSLP, SBP, and CACFP were allowed to use summer food programs to serve take-away meals without offering fortification activities (a prepandemic requirement). Under the current exemptions, approved states may allow summer food program locations to serve multiple meals at once during vacation breaks. For example, on the last day of school before the winter break, some locations offered meals worth 1 or 2 weeks. But not all kitchens or student households can safely store that much food.

Recent efforts point to a third caveat: low participation rates in programs that provide groceries on weekends and during class breaks. The reach of these programs is usually limited to children who live near the participating locations. During the pandemic, schools struggled to maintain adequate attendance in take-away programs, possibly because they tried to implement short-term modified eating programs while sharing changing USDA guidelines with families.

What can be done to remove these limitations? During the pandemic, an evidence-based strategy to alleviate child hunger would be to increase monthly P-EBT benefits. Another possibility would be to further expand the overall size of the SNAP benefit or at least to extend the temporary increase in the SNAP benefit that has just been approved.

Healthcare workers can play an essential role in connecting families with existing federal nutrition programs. Many health systems across the country screen patients for food insecurity, which could increase participation in such programs and raise awareness of additional community resources. With food insecurity costing the health system an estimated US $ 53 billion annually5 and with many food insecure people having public insurance, increasing participation in nutrition programs could result in savings elsewhere in the federal safety net.

While these measures would help reduce food insecurity, they would likely be temporary. Long-term federal approaches are needed and continued innovation will be essential to reducing food insecurity among children. Exceptions and innovations in connection with pandemics offer the opportunity to permanently strengthen the federal food security network. Changes should be based on a careful evaluation of the effectiveness of pandemic-related programs and aimed at feeding as many hungry children as possible. The ultimate goal should be to ensure that children have adequate access to food all day of the week, year round, and in all environments.

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