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Tackling Food Insecurity among K–12 Students during COVID-19

photo - Girl in Front of Line of Adults Packing Boxes with Food

Food insecurity—either concerns around having enough food or outright hunger—has increased sharply this spring. Nationally, among children age 12 and under, the rate is up 14 points—from about 3% in 2018 to 17% in April 2020.  During California’s COVID-19 school closures, even large districts appear to be serving fewer free and low-cost meals than before the pandemic, while rural or small districts face their own challenges in reaching students.

Typically about 3.7 million California students, or 60%, qualify for free or reduced-price meals, a number that likely shot up under shelter-in-place orders. When classes are in session, these students may receive most of their food at school. Since schools closed in March, districts have set up more than 4,700 grab-and-go sites to continue providing meals to students.

Many districts provide meals to everyone under the age of 18. San Diego Unified is distributing one extra breakfast and lunch to cover nutrition needs over weekends; other districts, including Twin River Unified in north Sacramento, are providing dinner along with breakfast and lunch.

However, sites seem to be distributing fewer meals now than they did during the school year: districts may not be reaching all students in need. In Los Angeles Unified, only 40,000 meals were served daily when schools first closed. The number has risen since to 374,000—but last April, students had eaten roughly 600,000 meals. Meanwhile, in rural districts coping with the logistics of reaching students, some are relying on school buses or school staff to deliver meals.

California recently received federal approval to distribute Pandemic EBT (P-EBT) cards to help families buy food for their children while schools remain closed. Families with children eligible for free or reduced-price meals—including those recently eligible—can receive up to $365 per child to buy food in most grocery stores and farmer’s markets.

Children matched to CalFresh or certain other state program data—those who are “directly certified”— automatically received cards in the mail between May 12 and May 22. As of last fall, 62% of students enrolled in programs for free and reduced price meals were directly certified, although across districts this share ranged widely.

To receive the P-EBT card, an additional 1.5 million students who are not directly certified may need to complete a short, online application starting on May 22. This process could be a barrier for families, particularly for those who may lack access to the internet. On average, 39% to 42% of eligible students in higher poverty districts will need to apply, while a lower share (31%) in the lowest poverty districts will need to apply.

figure - Districts with Highest Poverty Have Lowest Shares of Students Who Automatically Receive Pandemic EBT Card

Looking ahead, keeping flexible strategies in place will help districts continue feeding children while need is high, though federal and state lawmakers should monitor how districts cover costs for these emergency services. And while the P-EBT program is set to end on June 30, it could be an ongoing solution to food insecurity among children, filling the longstanding meal gap that occurs each summer when schools close.

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