Some schools in three states have closed due to the threat posed by coronavirus, and many more may follow. That could leave many students hungry at home without the free or reduced-price meals they get at school. It’s a problem school administrators are trying to solve before it becomes a crisis, but there aren’t easy answers, at least under the current rules.
Nearly 22 million kids across the country get subsidized meals at school, and for many, that’s a lifeline without which they’d experience food insecurity or worse. During the summer, some school districts continue to serve meals to eligible kids—but only districts in which at least 50% of kids are eligible to get funding for that program. Even if the USDA waived that requirement, though, COVID-19 would pose significant challenges. The fact is that, if schools close, it’s to keep people from getting together in large groups where the disease could be widely transmitted. Getting big groups of kids together for food would involve the same risk—and targeting the kids whose communities would struggle most to get adequate medical care.
“If there is community spread of COVID-19, design strategies to avoid distribution in settings where people might gather in a group or crowd,” the CDC advised schools. “Consider options such as ‘grab-and-go’ bagged lunches or meal delivery.” Crystal FitzSimons, director of School and Out-of-School Time Programs at the Food Research and Action Center, suggested to Politico that the USDA should go one step further and issue waivers allowing students to pick up multiple days’ worth of meals at one time, rather than having to go out to a crowded place every single day.
One district near Seattle closed schools but is holding classes online, which enables it to continue its meal program, with students ordering online.
But Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, while claiming, “If schools are closed, we are going to [do] the very best we can with the tools we have to get those kids fed,” also said that his department could only be so flexible, warning that “because those statutes don’t allow that discretion from USDA,” some school districts simply wouldn’t be eligible for exceptions. Pardon me for questioning whether the Trump administration has the very best and most creative minds trying to figure out how to make sure low-income kids keep getting fed.
If the USDA can’t or won’t do every single thing necessary to make sure every kid is fed who possibly can be, this is one more thing that Congress will need to act on. This is not a situation for sitting around worrying about the rules that prevent hungry kids from getting food. It’s a situation for dismantling those rules. That would still leave unaddressed the real public health concerns around how to effectively distribute food to these kids without risking additional disease transmission, but at least the effort and will to succeed would be there.