Summer meal programs offer a lifeline for families struggling to put enough food on the table, especially once school is out of session and children no longer have access to school lunch and breakfast.
But the end of pandemic-era federal flexibility that allowed schools to distribute free meals to all students, regardless of income, means that fewer students will likely benefit from the programs this summer, according to nutrition experts.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture—the federal agency that oversees school meal programs—authorized waivers from school lunch program rules, allowing districts to expand their meal programs.
Usually, only students whose families had low incomes defined by the federal program were eligible for free or cheaper school meals, but the waivers allowed districts to provide food free of charge to all students and receive federal reimbursement.
They also allowed for the expansion of summer meal programs because the programs could be set up anywhere, rather than specifically in areas with large concentrations of low-income households.
A report by the Food Research & Action Center found that for every 100 children who received a lunch during the 2020-21 school year, only 30.4 received a lunch the following summer, when the waiver was still in effect. Summer meal programs then served fewer students last summer, after the federal waivers’ June 30 expiration.
“This summer we’re going to see a much bigger drop because summer meal waivers are gone,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations for the School Nutrition Association.
With the expiration of those waivers last June, a handful of states—including California, Minnesota, New Mexico, Maine, and Colorado—have codified the free-meals-for-all approach in state law, while other states have done so temporarily. None of those laws, however, address summer meal access, researchers at FRAC said.
And Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., this month renewed a push to make the pandemic-era free, universal meals policy permanent. But the proposal faces long odds in a divided Congress.
Participation declining after pandemic peak
In addition to providing for free meals, the pandemic waivers provided more flexibility for how and where students could receive their meals. Under the traditional program, students are required to eat their 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.
For summer programs, the waivers meant they were free of the usual restrictions on where they could operate, meaning they weren’t limited to areas with large numbers of low-income households.
That was especially helpful in the summer because it allowed districts and other organizations to set up sites in rural areas and communities that traditionally didn’t qualify for summer programs, said Clarissa Hayes, deputy director of FRAC’s school and out-of-school time programs.
It also created continuity from the school year to summer, Hayes said, because families didn’t have to search for the closest site—oftentimes, their child’s school was still distributing meals in the summer, so it was a familiar routine.
In July 2021, about 5.6 million children participated in schools’ summer nutrition programs on an average weekday, according to FRAC research. That was an increase of nearly 2.8 million children from the same time in 2019, but a decrease of almost 600,000 from July 2020.
Without intervention, Pratt-Heavner said she expects those numbers to continue dwindling.
Lower participation in meal programs during the school year has foreshadowed that prediction.
Since the end of pandemic-era waivers, families are again required to apply and be approved for free and reduced-price meals. A recent survey by the School Nutrition Association found that about 91 percent of programs that must collect meal applications reported that it’s been challenging to get families to submit the forms.
That could be due to stigma around the program, fear about submitting personal information (the forms ask for a Social Security number, which can be a deterrent for families without legal status), or simply a lack of awareness, Pratt-Heavner said.
“And even among the families that are willing to provide the information, there are so many that don’t quite qualify for meal benefits but are still struggling to put food on the table and that’s, in part, because the application only collects income data, and not any other information about expenses that could be affecting a family’s financial situation,” Pratt-Heavner said. “Not to mention that the standard to qualify is uniform across the country, regardless of where you live or cost of living differences.”
The cost of a school meal varies by state, but, on average, it’s about $2.48 for elementary students and $2.74 for high schoolers, according to the School Nutrition Association.
Raising awareness is key to increasing participation
The biggest barrier to getting students to participate in summer meal programs is a “lack of awareness,” said Hayes, with FRAC.
“Even if families participated for the first time during the pandemic, it will look very different this upcoming summer,” she said. “I would say that schools getting out information to their families before the end of the school year is one of the most impactful ways to increase awareness about these programs.”
Headed into the final stretch of the school year, districts should make an intentional effort to ensure families know free or reduced-price summer meals are available, Hayes said.
Getting the message out through channels families are familiar with is a good approach, Pratt-Heavner said. Those could include text messages and phone calls to students’ families, and posting the information on school and district social media pages.
Sharing the information in multiple languages could be especially helpful, she said.
The USDA has an online map of summer meal sites that allows families to enter their address and find the nearest location. There is also a hotline number that families can call for information.
“There is definitely no need to reinvent the wheel—schools do not have to be doing all this hard work,” Hayes said. “But sharing about the importance of having those summer meals can go a long way because families appreciate hearing that kind of information from sources they trust and know.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 07, 2023 edition of Education Week as Fewer Students Are Getting Free Summer Meals After Pandemic Waivers End