As kids and teens head back to school in the midst of COVID-19, caregivers have had to do something quite new for most — pay attention to, and worry over, state and federal policy.
Among the many concerns kids and families have about returning to school in this moment, for households experiencing unemployment, or other financial hardships that may have even been in place before COVID-19, school meals are front and center.
1 in 5 households with children are currently experiencing food insecurity. For these homes, school meals represent a reliable source of nutrition that also allows money that would be spent on food to go to other essential costs like rent or utilities.
We sat down with our Director of Government Affairs to find out what’s going on with school meals from the perspective of state and federal policy.
It’s great to get a chance to talk with you about back to school, Jen, and particularly about school meals. You have two children, don’t you?
Jen Lemmerman (JL): I do! I have a 1 year old and a 3 year old, so school hasn’t been an issue for our family yet, but of course I’m well aware of what many, many households with children are dealing with right now.
We know that you are and that you absolutely care about our neighbors here in Massachusetts. What can you tell us about school meals as they relate to state and federal policy?
JL: I think there’s really three aspects to this that deal with three different moments, if you will. First, there’s the immediate response we’ve had to dealing with COVID-19. Next, there’s consideration of what we need to do longer term. Finally, we have to think about the future, despite whether or not COVID-19 is involved.
That’s actually a great framework for understanding this stuff! Let’s start at the beginning with your first item then, the immediate response.
JL: Well, right now every district is looking at various models to try and make returning to school as safe as possible. This includes fully remote learning, hybrid models mixing in-school with remote learning, and even different mixtures of the hybrid model like varying the rotation times, the sizes of classes, and the populations who might be physically present at school.
Looking at school meals, the challenge for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) is how to feed all these kids. This challenge existed before, but because of the rise in food insecurity during the pandemic, more people are aware of how much we need to be able to feed all children right now.
In terms of policy, earlier this year Project Bread worked with our anti-hunger partners and government champions to help feed kids by successfully advocating to extend the waivers that allow school meals to be served to all students throughout the summer, at meal sites across Massachusetts - including schools, but also at places like the YMCA.
I don’t want to get bogged down in the details, but basically these waivers give schools the ability to serve food to any youth without strings attached, like having to show that their family income is at a certain level to be eligible to receive aid, or having to document their citizenship.
These waivers were set to expire this fall, but through the advocacy I mentioned, we were able to get them extended to December 31st. This is great, and we should take a moment to celebrate that! Now, however, the challenge is that come January 1st, the need will still be there. This means we have to continue to advocate for another extension because the meal sites are set up, they’re operating well, and kids are getting fed. We have to make sure they stay open.
That breakdown is so helpful. What can people do to advocate for this next waiver extension?
JL: I would say that the best thing to do would be to follow along with our updates to the Action Team [you can join the Action Team here] so they’ll know when the time is right to advocate with the USDA.
Okay, so that brings us to the next question about the longer term.
JL: Right. So, we don’t know when the system of school meals will return to normal, but we need to be prepared for when kids are back in the classroom or cafeteria. On July 28th of this year, Project Bread and our partners celebrated the passage of Breakfast After the Bell (BATB) legislation in Massachusetts, something we had been working on and pushing for strongly. BATB will help 150,000 additional students access breakfast by making it part of the school day, like lunch. We were working on this legislation pre-COVID-19, and it won’t go into effect until 2022, but thinking longer term, it will support students who are returning to school at some point. This legislation will help kids whether because of continuing economic downturn or because they need meals when it takes effect. Either way it will increase participation in school breakfast programs, and we know that kids who start the day well fed have better learning outcomes.
Its great that we’ve been able to create space to think about and act toward longer term solutions. That was the final question as well, right, what about the future - with COVID-19 or not?
JL: Yeah, I mean, it’s important to always keep an eye on how we can keep solving hunger according to the different scenarios we might find ourselves in.
We’ll definitely continue to work on legislation that’s outstanding, like An Act to Support Student Nutrition, which will increase number of schools that serve universal meals, meaning that every student will get free meals with no strings attached like trying to determine who’s eligible and who isn’t. Having universal school meals would eliminate stigma, reduce bureaucracy, and streamline the process of getting kids fed.
Wow, that sounds amazing! I mean, that’s what Project Bread is ultimately about, everyone getting the food they need, every day. Do you have any final thoughts?
JL: During the pandemic we’ve seen barriers to feeding kids in schools come down, and going forward we need to make sure those barriers don’t come back up. We’re currently feeding all kids and we need to continue doing so for the future.
Great words to end a great interview. Thanks so much, Jen!