By Bradford Mason
According to state data, 500,000 students in New Jersey rely on school meal programs that include free or reduced cost breakfast and lunch. School closures due to COVID-19 and potential closures this fall are compromising how many children are getting food.
As COVID-19 infection rates continue to increase in states across the country, many jurisdictions are facing the complex dilemma of high infection rates complicating school re-openings and thereby limiting students’ access to school-based meal programs.
In March schools across the country, including New Jersey, began closing to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus. In response, and recognizing the important source of nutrition school-based meals were to millions of American children, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service began approving nationwide waivers to provide school systems flexibility in how meals were provided to students.
Waivers enable schools to serve meals in non-congregate settings and outside of standard mealtimes, serve afterschool snacks and meals outside of structured environments, and waive requirements that students be present when meals are picked up.
Over half of all students in elementary and secondary schools across the country depend on the National School Lunch Program, and 12.5 million of those students also participate in the School Breakfast Program. As the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools this spring, these students were placed at risk of not having enough to eat.
A new policy brief, Beyond School Walls: How Federal, State and Local Entities are Adapting Policies to Ensure Student Access to Healthy Meals During the COVID-19 Pandemic, released today by Trust for America’s Health, reviews steps the federal and state governments have taken to ensure students’ access to healthy meals when schools are closed and what needs to be done to ensure continued meal access as all school systems face uncertainties about how to safely reopen for the 2020-2021 school year.
“School meal programs are the most important source of nutritious food for millions of American children. To the degree possible, school systems, with financial and regulatory relief from the federal government,  should continue to be innovative about how to deliver meals to students and should strive to meet or exceed federal nutrition standards for these meals despite product shortages created by the pandemic,” said Adam Lustig, Project Manager at Trust for America’s Health and the brief’s author.
Due to the economic impact the pandemic has had on millions of American families and the numerous uncertainties about how to safely re-open schools, the currently in place program waivers should be extended through the summer and may need to be kept in place during the 2020–2021 school year, the brief says.
Hunger, poor nutrition and food insecurity can increase a child’s risk of developing a range of physical, mental, behavioral, emotional, and learning problems. Hungry children also get sick more often and are more likely to be hospitalized. Maintaining children’s access to nutritious meals despite school closures not only ensure they do not go hungry, but also promotes children’s health.
“State and federal guidelines waivers have allowed school systems to provide meals to students during the pandemic response, keeping them in place this summer and into the 2020-2021 school year will be the difference between kids who have enough to eat and kids who go hungry,” Lustig said.

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