When COVID-19 safety measures led to school and business closures in spring 2020, food insecurity hit 25% of households with children.

In response, the US Department of Agriculture issued a series of waivers and flexibilities that allowed school districts and other local sponsors to continue operating child nutrition programs through school systems.

Those waivers enabled more children access to free school meals during the first summer of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers said at a Tuesday Annual Meeting session.

smiling girl with school lunch trayThe APHA 2021 session, “Reach and implementation of USDA Child Nutrition Programs in Three States During COVID-19: Realities and Reason for Optimism,” compared program participation in Maryland, North Carolina and New York in spring and summer 2020 to previous years.

Researchers presented data showing that, though school meals lagged slightly in spring compared to 2019, participation exploded in summer. Maryland, for example, which has about 1,500 schools and 1 million students, served 6.5 million additional meals in summer 2020.

Eligibility waivers made the difference, presenters said. USDA waived the requirement of meals being served in a “congregate” setting, which meant families could take advantage of grab-and-go drive-up service and could pre-order meals. The agency also relaxed the hours meals could be available. Many states, meanwhile, took advantage of the federal option of expanding the geographic region where students could get meals.

“The area eligibility really helped us in that we could serve anywhere in the county, and be reimbursed for those meals,” said a school worker interviewed for the Maryland study.

School meal participation is associated with improved food security, dietary quality and academic performance, said Susan Gross, an associate scientist and nutritionist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who co-authored the Maryland study. USDA waivers allowed for innovation in preparing and distributing meals in order to meet the needs of students. Availability and accessibility of meals improved participation.

“Overall, the waivers were positively received,” Gross said.

APHA has repeatedly weighed in on the need for expanding children’s access to school meals, including signing on to a letter that recommends strengthening, protecting and expanding access to school nutrition programs.

In April, USDA announced an extension of school meal waivers through the 2021-2022 school year. Four months later, Johns Hopkins and Maryland Hunger Solutions issued a policy brief arguing that USDA waivers issued in response to the COVID-19 pandemic should be made permanent.

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