In summary

The challenges of running meal programs for children during the COVID-19 pandemic means more kids will struggle with access to the nutritious meals.

By Tia Shimada and Jared Call, Special to CalMatters

Tia Shimada is director of programs with California Food Policy Advocates, info@cfpa.net. Jared Call is a senior advocate with California Food Policy Advocates, info@cfpa.net. They wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

With camps and youth programs canceled, many California families are wrestling with how to keep their children engaged throughout the summer. For too many families, there is a more gut-wrenching challenge: how to keep their children fed. 

Our state and federal governments have an urgent responsibility to help.  

Summer has long been an especially tough season for kids at risk of food insecurity. When school breaks begin, access to school meals plummets. Given our state’s child poverty rate – the highest in the nation – not nearly enough schools or community organizations serve meals during the summer. 

Those programs that do serve summer meals don’t reach enough children in need, despite tremendous effort. Our recent analysis found that 86% of children who benefit from free and reduced-price lunches during the school year miss out on summer meal programs. 

This year, the COVID-19 crisis stands to make the problem even worse. The financial and operational challenges of running meal programs during a public health emergency, coupled with skyrocketing needs among California families, means more kids will struggle with access to the nutritious meals.  

In March, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order sustaining state education funding during the pandemic-driven school closures to support four core functions, including continued meal service for kids. Schools across the state stepped up to serve the nutritional needs of vulnerable students during these incredibly challenging times. But the governor’s order doesn’t say anything about making meals available during the summer break. 

State and federal leaders should act now to keep California kids from going hungry during the tough summer ahead. As state budget decisions are made in the coming days, Newsom must commit to the $112.2 million in child nutrition funding the Legislature has approved – and set policy that ensures child nutrition programs actually reach kids in need.

California’s elected leaders should guarantee that children can continue accessing meals from schools throughout the summer months, both by setting an expectation that meals will be served and by providing resources to help make this happen. 

Meanwhile, the federal government should take immediate action to extend waivers that have allowed California schools and community organizations to provide children with access to free meals thus far during the COVID-19 crisis. These waivers include flexibilities such as serving meals without requiring children to eat in group settings and allowing parents to pick up meals for their kids without their children being present. Many of these flexibilities are set to expire Aug. 31, while other important waivers expire even sooner.  

These are not the only looming deadlines. Benefits for one of the most promising anti-hunger programs initiated during COVID-19 are only funded until June 30. That federal program, called Pandemic-PBT, provides food benefits to children who are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals and lost access to those meals when schools closed because of the pandemic. The benefits, provided on a debit-like card, can be used to purchase groceries. 

Funding Pandemic-PBT until schools are fully reopened – and including non-school-age children in the program – are obvious steps federal lawmakers can take to help California families make ends meet during the economic fallout of COVID-19.  

In April, more than one-third of U.S. households with children reported that in the past 30 days “the food we bought just didn’t last, and we didn’t have enough money to get more.” In another April survey, one in six U.S. mothers with children under 12 reported, “The children in my household were not eating enough because we just couldn’t afford enough food.”

That’s unacceptable. From Sacramento to Washington, D.C., our elected leaders can and should do more to nourish children throughout COVID-19 and its aftermath. Child hunger is a crisis that we have the power – and moral obligation  – to solve.

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Tia Shimada is director of programs with California Food Policy Advocates, info@cfpa.net. Jared Call is a senior advocate with California Food Policy Advocates, info@cfpa.net. They wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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