Meeting Children’s Nutritional Needs in Uncertain Times

April 2, 2020 | Ohio

Katherine Ungar will be writing a series of blog posts exploring policy strategies that the federal and state government are or should be taking to address food insecurity during the COVID-19 public health emergency and beyond.

April 2, 2020

By Katherine Ungar, JD, Policy Associate and with contributions from Tziporah Tiller, College Intern

Meeting Children’s Nutritional Needs in Uncertain Times

School breakfast and lunch programs provide our children much-needed nutritious meals so they can learn and be healthy. Children who come from food-insecure homes obtain a significant portion of their daily calories and nutrients from the meals they receive at schools. Programs like the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) ensure children receive meals at school. The NSLP has been shown to reduce childhood food insecurity, poor health, and obesity. National and state programs like NSLP are critical for the well-being of our children, particularly food insecure and low-income children.

In Ohio, 40% of students, 717,740 children, received free or reduced priced lunch in the 2019-2020 school year and in 2018, 32.1% of children in Ohio received SNAP/food stamps. Absent the current public health emergency, many families were already vulnerable and food insecure statewide. This pandemic and the economic instability it means for many low-wage earning families will result in more Ohioans, especially our youngest, experiencing increased levels of food insecurity and hunger.

COVID-19 Impact

The COVID-19 pandemic poses significant challenges for child nutrition. The outbreak forced schools across the country to close their doors and transition to online learning, taking away many children’s food source for an indeterminate period of time. This week, Governor DeWine issued an order closing all Ohio schools until at least May 1st. However, this order could last through the rest of the school year. In Columbus City Schools alone, 25,000 students receive breakfast and 35,000 receive lunch in a normal school day.  Students in both rural and urban areas rely on school breakfasts and lunch.  In other words, this is a statewide issue.

In addition to the loss of school-provided meals, many families are dealing with the closure of non-essential businesses and its impact on household income. Many low-wage workers live in families earning less than 150% of the federal poverty line (FPL) and primarily work in the retail and service industries. These industries have been particularly hard hit as Governor DeWine has drastically reduced their capacity or closed them altogether as part of the COVID-19 mitigation and containment efforts, leaving many families with reduced earnings, unemployment income, or no income at all for many of Ohio’s low income wage earners who didn’t file a tax return in 2019 and many in the immigrant community who lack a work permit.

The federal government is also working to alleviate this growing food access issue. Congress recently passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act which includes critical provisions for families and children, which includes:

  • $1.5 billion for food banks and to expand food assistance, including $500 million for the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program,
  • suspension of work and work training requirements for SNAP, and
  • allows states to request waivers to provide emergency SNAP benefits to existing SNAP households up to the maximum monthly allotment.

While the federal action is a step in the right direction, more must be done to feed our vulnerable families and children.

What is Ohio Doing to Address these Issues for Children and Families?

Over 1000 Ohio schools and recreational facilities continue to offer meals to students under the Seamless Summer Option (SSO) or the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP). Until recently, these feeding sites required the meal to be consumed on the premises; however, Ohio recently received a waiver from the USDA to allow for non-congregate feeding sites, in other words, lifting the requirement that all children be fed together and at the same time. The Ohio Department of Education provides and updates a map and excel list on its website to identify the various school feeding sites and hours of operation across the state.

While these programs seek to aid Ohio’s children and ensure they receive adequate nutrition during the pandemic, some of these services inherently present barriers to access for some of our most vulnerable children.  For example, non-congregate feeding sites still require students to find transportation to get to the school, which could pose issues for children whose parents or caregivers are working during the day, who do not live near the school, or lack other modes of transportation. Even making this more complicated, just until recently, children were required to be accompanied by a parent to pick up their meals. These requirements pose significant barriers for working parents and guardians and may prevent children from accessing the food they need to be healthy.

Local Needs Drive Creative Approaches

Cleveland recognized this barrier and established a shuttle bus service to make sure students could find transportation to the feeding sites.  In Cleveland, 22 sites were established where youth, regardless of school or enrollment status, can eat breakfast and lunch. Other communities are running their bus routes to deliver meals to students at their homes to remove transportation barriers.  Hamilton City Schools provides lunch and breakfast for the next morning to children in the community.  The meals are provided at bus stops throughout the district.

School districts and communities must consider the barriers that may prevent children and families from accessing needed meals during the COVID-19 emergency.  We encourage cross-sharing between communities who have implemented innovative approaches, such as bussing meals, as a way to ensure Ohio’s children have access to nutritious food during the COVID-19 emergency.  In addition, we are hopeful that these feeding sites will work with food pantries and other non-profit organizations to provide additional support for child nourishment, as well as feeding the entire family.