New report issues recommendations for school meals during pandemic

Hunger is up as a result of the pandemic, but school meal participation rates are down.

by Alison Killeen


In March 2020, when the pandemic shut down the majority of public schools in Oregon, families faced a crisis: the place where they relied on their child accessing two meals every weekday was no longer available. The degree to which most Oregon families rely on school meals to make ends meet was exposed as many families scrambled to figure out how to feed their children ten more meals per week than they usually do.

In the midst of an unknown virus, and facing unprecedented logistical challenges, school nutrition staff quickly organized innovative responses to get school meals to families while schools were closed. The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued waivers to make regulations around meal serving procedures more flexible, and the CARES Act allowed districts to serve meals to all students 18 and under for free. Families could then receive multiple days worth of to-go meals outside of traditional times and were not required to have a child present at pick up (or drop off, as the case may be).

But was it enough to meet the need? To examine the pandemic’s impact on school meal access and identify gaps in the government’s response, Emerson Hunger Fellow Cara Claflin worked with Hunger-Free Oregon to survey 71 participants, including 61 school districts and ten staff members at community-based organizations across Oregon. Of the 47 districts that provided information on changes in their meal participation numbers, 76% (36 districts) reported a decrease in the number of meals they served during the pandemic.

Even as schools reopen and the pandemic (hopefully) continues to wane, dramatically increased rates of hunger are here to stay for some time. Meanwhile, as children return to school, it continues to be uncertain whether existing school meal service options will be able to adequately address food insecurity among Oregon families.

For an adequate anti-hunger infrastructure, we must have effective strategies for children to access school meals in the midst of at home, hybrid, and distanced learning settings. This report offers best practices for school nutrition staff and policy recommendations for lawmakers and government officials to increase access to school meals and reduce food insecurity for families during these unprecedented times.

Read the report: Oregon School Meal Access during the Covid-19 Pandemic: Barriers, Best Practices, and Policy Recommendations by Cara Claflin.