How School Meals Help Families Impacted by the Pandemic

Mar 16, 2021, 1:00 PM, Posted by

School meals are a lifeline to tens of millions of families across the country. Learn about new research showing why healthy meals are so important—and opportunities to help schools ensure more families have access to the healthy foods they need.

Families gather in long car lines at a Houston distribution site. Families gather in car lines at a Houston meal distribution site. Photo Credit: Houston Independent School District

On a typical day before the pandemic, school food service workers across America did far more than serve lunch to the nearly 30 million children participating in the National School Lunch Program, and the nearly 15 million participating in the School Breakfast Program. Many also served afterschool snacks and even dinners for students to take home to their families. These school meals are a lifeline for tens of millions of kids and families who are furthest from economic opportunity.

All of this changed in March 2020 when schools across the country began closing in droves in response to COVID-19. Students in Houston were getting ready for Spring Break just as lockdowns began. This timing meant that instead of being stocked to serve students for the week, refrigerators across the Houston Independent School District (HISD) were empty.

Upon facing the reality that millions of families across Houston would need food, Betti Wiggins, the nutrition services officer for the HISD, sprang into action.

She knew the Houston Food Banka well-oiled meal distribution operationcould help. In spite of the short notice, they joined forces with Betti and her staff, along with other partners and volunteers. Using a warehouse the size of four football fields, they packaged thousands of bags of food. These meals were transported in long refrigerated trucks to distribution sites across Betti’s district as well as to 17 additional districts across Houston. As a result, she was ready to distribute food to car lines of families from across the city.

Feeding intergenerational families all year-long

Betti also understands that school meals do more than help kids. When preparing meals for distribution, she considers the intergenerational families that kids come home to. She aims to provide quality, nutritious meals to any person who needs food during the COVID-19 pandemic. Betti calls feeding families one of HISD’s “wraparound services” and considers providing meals vital to her mission.

That includes holiday meals, which she believes not only align with the district’s nutrition goals, but also the needs of students and families. Last fall and winter, many families in Houston and across the country were struggling to provide regular meals, along with holiday celebrations and gifts. So, working with HISD and No Kid Hungrya national campaign working to solve problems of hunger and povertyshe provided meal boxes, canned vegetables and turkeys, as well as hygiene kits and cleaning supplies. As a result, families enjoyed holiday dinners together without worrying about how to pay for other expenses, and students returned to school well-nourished and ready to learn.

Betti discusses the unique needs of intergenerational households in her own words in this 30 second soundbite: 

Providing critical nutrients for millions of families

The latest data project that in 2021, more than 42 million Americans, including 13 million children, will experience food insecurity, meaning they will not be able to afford enough food to support a healthy life. Before COVID-19, more than half of American students and their families relied on free and reduced-price school meals as their primary source of nutrition. In fact, many children consume up to half their daily calories at school.

Research underscores the importance of nutritious school meals for kids’ health. One study that examined the impact of updating nutrition standards for school meals starting in the 2012-13 school year found that by 2018, the prevalence of obesity among children in families with low incomes was 47 percent lower than would have been expected without the healthier standards. The researchers estimate that this translates to more than 500,000 fewer cases of obesity.

And a series of studies released earlier this year adds to the growing body of evidence that supports the stronger nutrition standards USDA put in place nearly a decade ago. I spoke with Mary Story, PhD, Program Director for Healthy Eating Research about the new studies that show serving healthier meals not only boosts students’ participation in programs, it also does not cost more money.

Expanding support for kids’ health beyond the pandemic

Innovative heroes like Betti Wiggins, and others like her all across the country, know that the meals they provide ensure millions of kids are getting the essential nutrients they need. It’s a critical service and support for families, especially during a pandemic. But the “Bettis” of the country cannot and should not do it alone. Our schools and families need support from all levels of government to ensure that nutritious school meals are available to every child who needs them now and in the months and years to come.

RWJF's Jaimie Bussel discusses new research findings on school meals with Dr. Mary Story, Program Director of Heatlhy Eating Research.

A recent report on the State of Childhood Obesity: Prioritizing Children’s Health During the Pandemic details how the pandemic has affected school meals, and how the U.S. government has responded and must continue to respond, so that these leaders can continue to provide healthy meals for kids.

COVID-19 relief measures passed by Congress since March 2020 enabled USDA to issue nationwide waivers that permit schools to serve meals to all students free of charge. In addition to ensuring that every child has a consistent source of good nutrition, universal school meals—which is now in place through at least September 30, 2021—also reduce time-consuming and expensive administrative burdens for states and school districts, guard against the additional accumulation of unpaid meal debt, and eliminate the stigma, bullying, and harassment that children who qualify for free or reduced-price meals can experience. The COVID-19 relief measures also enabled USDA to approve state plans to provide emergency assistance—through SNAP—to households with children who would otherwise receive free or reduced-price meals at school. The relief legislation has also provided $8.8 million in additional funding to cover food purchases and demonstration projects to increase flexibility for schools.

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of school meals, not only for preventing child hunger but also for ensuring millions of families have access to healthy food. Emergency measures that strengthen and improve school meals programs must continue and be expanded throughout recovery to ensure that all children have enough nutritious food. It has been more than a decade since Congress last reauthorized the Child Nutrition Act, legislation that covers school meals and other federal nutrition programs. Reauthorizing that law has never been more timely in light of the pandemic, and represents a significant opportunity for Congress to build on the critical gains ushered in by the previous reauthorization of that law, known as the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

At the Foundation, we believe every childand every familyin this country deserves a fair and just opportunity to live the best, healthiest life possible. That means families should be at the center of policy discussions and every effort should be made to strengthen policies so families have the supports and resources they need to raise healthy kids. School meals have always had a critical role in helping kids grow up healthy. Throughout recovery from this pandemic and beyond, they truly will be a lifeline for millions of kids.

Learn more about our recommendations for improving access to healthy schools meals.



Jamie Bussell

Jamie Bussel is a senior program officer who focuses on ensuring that all children have the building blocks needed to promote lifelong health. Follow her on Twitter: @JBussel