In summary

Many school children in California rely on the nutrition they receive from school meals; schools and families will need more resources to feed their kids this fall.

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By Kathy Saile and

Kathy Saile is the California director for No Kid Hungry, a national anti-hunger campaign,

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Barbara Friedrich, Special to CalMatters

Barbara Friedrich is a retired LAUSD principal who sits on No Kid Hungry’s council of School Breakfast Champions,

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One question unites every American family right now: whether and how their children will be going back to school this fall. In California, that question is easily answered: at least 90% of students will start the school year with full-time distance learning. 

“Back to school” may look different this year, but one thing remains the same: kids in California and throughout America are hungry and rely on the nutrition they receive from school meals to learn, grow and reach their full potential. 

In the first months of the COVID-19 crisis, 1 in 4 families with kids in America reported facing hunger. Before the pandemic, nearly 22 million kids – including 3.8 million California students – received free or low-cost meals at school, a number that could rise dramatically in this new economy.

When schools closed in March, many turned on a dime to revamp their nutrition operations. In the Coachella Valley Unified School District, Marcus Alonzo took his nutrition team from serving kids in the cafeteria to setting up community meals sites and delivering food by bus across their rural area. “It was a lot of planning,” he said. “We did it over a span of a weekend and one weekday. It was a challenge, but we got through it.”

Since March, No Kid Hungry has provided $25 million to schools and community organizations feeding kids. Over the next 90 days we’ll grant millions more to help schools reconfigure their operations. We’ve successfully advocated for flexibilities in how programs are run, as well as for more state and federal funding to feed families, and we’ve spread the word about meals available to those who need them.

But feeding kids will be even more challenging this fall. Many families are out of work and struggling to put food on the table. Many more kids will need school meals. 

All this comes as school budgets are decimated. The Los Angeles Unified School District, which has provided 45 million meals to kids and adults since schools closed, is facing a huge budget deficit, like most major urban districts. From critical equipment to fuel for deliveries, PPE and staff hazard pay, the cost of serving school meals now is significantly higher than through normal operations. Schools reopening with both in-person and distance learning will have to offer two entirely different meal programs at the same time, compounding costs. 

With these challenges looming, schools and families need every resource available to feed their kids. 

Schools need more flexibility to serve the needs of their communities. The USDA must extend its area eligibility waiver to allow schools in mixed-income communities to serve free meals. Many middle-income families are facing wage loss and need this help.

School districts need more funding to shore up their nutrition budgets. Charitable efforts will help, but states must provide additional funding to keep school meals programs viable. Gov. Gavin Newsom and the California Legislature allocated $112 million in funding for emergency school meals. More states need to follow suit. 

Families need more money to buy groceries in place of lost school meals. CalFresh, known as SNAP, is the best solution to address the current hunger crisis. SNAP not only feeds families, it feeds the economy. The new Pandemic-EBT program is especially important to reach kids in rural areas and those without transportation to meals sites. 

Congress must make sure any new COVID-19 recovery package builds on SNAP’s economic stimulus effects by boosting the maximum benefit by at least 15%, increasing the minimum benefit, improving flexibility for where SNAP dollars can be spent and extending Pandemic-EBT.

There’s no single solution to feed our nation’s children through this crisis, but with a variety of resources, we will get through it. Schools are ready to respond, and we owe it to the many kids and families who are struggling to find solutions that will support them with dignity.

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