School & District Management Data

Data: How Schools Respond to Student Hunger Over the Summer

By Caitlynn Peetz — May 25, 2023 1 min read
Children enjoy lunches provided by the Brownsville Independent School District on June 8, 2016, at the Olivera Park gymnasium in Brownsville, Texas. The local school district provides free lunches to any child under 18 who needs a meal, regardless of their status as a student with the school district.
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The number of students receiving free summer meals notably increased in 2020 and 2021 from pre-pandemic levels.

That was the result of the federal government loosening rules governing schools and community organizations that provide students free meals during the summer, and school districts and other groups ramping up efforts to feed students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But there’s since been a drop in the number of students receiving free meals once school has let out for the summer. And experts expect participation to continue to fall this summer following last June’s expiration of federal waivers that made free school meals available to all students, regardless of income, and allowed schools and other organizations to set up free summer meal distribution sites anywhere.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States Department of Agriculture (the federal agency that oversees school meal programs) authorized waivers allowing districts to expand their meal programs. The waivers temporarily suspended the standard requirements that only students whose families were determined to be low income based on federal criteria were eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

The waivers also provided more flexibility for how and where students could receive their meals.

Under the traditional program, students are required to eat their school meals on site, but the waivers allowed for grab-and-go meals, or the option to pack up several days’ worth of meals that families could pick up and take home all at once. Many districts changed their meal service infrastructure in response, setting up meal deliveries and pick-up sites.

Summer meal programs, as a result of the waivers, could set up shop wherever demand was greatest. They weren’t limited to areas with high concentrations of low-income households.

The changes led to increased participation in meal programs, particularly in the summer, according to research from the Food Research & Action Center, an anti-hunger advocacy group.

Here are some numerical highlights from the center’s January report on summer nutrition, entitled “Hunger Doesn’t Take a Vacation,” and a January report from the School Nutrition Association on challenges for school meal programs.

3.4 million   The increase in average daily participation in summer breakfast in July 2021 compared with the same time in 2019. The 2021 figure, however, marked a decrease of about 900,000 students compared with July 2020.


In July 2021, on an average weekday, summer nutrition programs served lunch to almost 5.6 million children, an INCREASE of just over 2.8 million, more than double the number of children served in July 2019.


101   The percentage increase in participation in summer lunch programs from July 2019 to July 2021.

30.4   The number of children who received a summer lunch in July 2021 for every 100 children who received a lunch during the preceding school year, 2020-21. FRAC wants to see the ratio rise to at least 40 children receiving summer meals for every 100 participating in a school lunch program during the academic year.


In July 2021, 30.4 children received summer lunch for every 100 children who received a free or reduced-price lunch in the 2020-2021 school year.


1   The number of states, along with the District of Columbia, that saw a decrease in the average daily participation in summer meal programs in July 2021 when compared with July 2019. The decrease in the District of Columbia was about 25 percent, while New Mexico’s was about 5 percent.


Nine states and the District of Columbia met the Food Research & Action Center's goal of reaching 40 children with summer meals for every 100 children who received free or reduced-price lunch during the 2020-2021 regular school year.


5 million   The number of children nationwide who received a summer breakfast on an average weekday in July 2021. Summer meal sites typically have funding to provide breakfast and lunch, though many sites have traditionally provided only lunch. In 2021, there was a notable increase in the number of sites serving breakfast.

89.5   The number of children who received a summer breakfast in July 2021 for every 100 children who received a summer lunch during that same period.


Participation in July 2021—the second summer impacted by COVID-19—was lower than in July 2020. About 600,000 FEWER children participated in the summer nutrition programs, despite the same flexibilities being available to sponsors.


91   The percentage of meal program providers that reported challenges getting families to submit the required application forms to receive free and reduced-price meals, according to the School Nutrition Association report.

67   The percentage of meal providers that reported an increase in stigma for low-income students since the end of pandemic-era free and reduced-price meal applications, according to the School Nutrition Association.

See Also

Kids line up for lunch outside the Michigan City Area Schools' converted school bus at Weatherstone Village on U.S. 20 in Michigan City, Ind., on July 22, 2021. The bus makes four stops every weekday as part of the Summer Food Program.
Kids line up for lunch outside the Michigan City Area Schools' converted school bus at Weatherstone Village on U.S. 20 in Michigan City, Ind., on July 22, 2021. The bus makes four stops every weekday as part of the Summer Food Program. Summer meal programs are expected to serve fewer students this summer after the expiration of a pandemic-era federal waiver.
Jeff Mayes/The News Dispatch via AP

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