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  • Sophie Dettling

COVID-19 Beyond the Classroom: The Pandemic’s Effect on Free and Reduced Lunch Programs

Tummies rumble as tennis shoes shuffle into the high-ceiling cafeteria and chatter explodes. Many Americans can relate to the school lunch hour, a time to share gossip and deli meat sandwiches. However, lunch time during the 2020-2021 school year is looking a lot different across the United States. Instead of those bustling cafeterias, students find themselves alone on the kitchen counter in the company of a dark screen that serves as their connector to the world of virtual learning. While the COVID-19 pandemic has hit the educational system hard, it has also served as a nutritional barrier for many children.

Across the country, 29.4 million school-aged children rely on free and reduced lunch services through the National School Lunch Program (USDA ERS, 2020). With the need to close down schools in March of 2020, and throughout the rest of the year in many cases, access to this service is limited. States expanded program benefits to try to allow for students to be served meals via parent pick-up programs throughout the rest of the calendar year (USDA Press, 2020). There are still many challenges to providing adequate nutrition to low-income children in the midst of a pandemic without a clear end in sight.

The burden of student meals lost due to COVID-19 school closures is staggering. Kinsley et al. calculated, using school closure reports and free and reduced lunch participation data, that an estimated 1,145,036,625 breakfast and lunch meals were missed from March 2nd to May 1st of 2020. Although this issue is being felt across the nation, the southern region of the United States and New York state are most prominently affected by Free and Reduced Lunch Program missed meals (Kinsley et al., 2020) For that many meals to be missed by some of the youngest members of our society, especially in a high-income country like the United States, is an unacceptable devastation of the pandemic.

Not having stable access to nutritious food can affect children in many ways, including negative effects on their academic performance. The definition of food insecurity is “the disruption of food intake or eating patterns because of lack of money and other resources” (Healthy People, 2020). This definition is important in identifying students who feel the troubling effects of disruptions in regular meal availability. In a 2007 literature review, Fanjiang and Kleinman concluded that “work published over the past 50 years has clearly demonstrated a negative effect of chronic malnutrition on behaviors and physical and cognitive performance” (Fanjiang & Kleinman, 2007). This research is critical in the analysis of current free and reduced lunch programs because the focus of such programs is to fuel the minds and bodies of young students. With the already unpredictable turbulence of the current education system due to COVID-19, malnutrition may be reducing the academic performance of our country’s youth. With the transition to more online learning environments, which requires more self-disciplined and independent learning, missing meals can widen the educational gap between food insecure and food secure students.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected students for nearly nine months and continues to pose challenges for the months ahead. With the growing length and lasting societal effects of this novel virus, changes to the United State’s free and reduced lunch program are absolutely crucial to the mental, physical, and academic well-being of school-aged children. Many school districts have come up with creative solutions to meet their community’s needs. For example, Flint Community Schools in Flint, Michigan have been distributing more meals at one time to limit the number of pick-ups families need to make. Additionally, in Albany, New York and Cleveland, Ohio programs have been adapted to provide backpacks filled with food every Friday to give students nutritional access over the weekends (Jablonski et al., 2020). While these programs help fill food access gaps for many students, there is still work to be done in order to avoid more missed meals in the coming days, weeks, and months of the pandemic. Based on their research of current emergency food provision programs, Jablonski et al. assert that there needs to be more federal guidance on how to provide meals, especially since not all educators are experts in food policy. The research team concluded that local food provisional programs depend on “(i) cross‐sector collaboration, (ii) adaptable supply chains, and (iii) addressing gaps in services to increased‐risk populations” (Jablonski et al., 2020). Following such policy designs will hopefully decrease the current lack in nutritional access to free and reduced lunch qualifying students. It is imperative that programs adjust to the barriers of the COVID-19 pandemic to provide student’s adequate food access. Knowing that there will be something to eat for lunch can revert students’ focus from rumbling tummies back to learning educational fundamentals for success.


Fanjiang, Gary; Kleinman, Ronald E Nutrition and performance in children, Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care: May 2007 - Volume 10 - Issue 3 - p 342-347 doi: 10.1097/MCO.0b013e3280523a9e

Healthy People 2020. Food insecurity.,of%20money%20and%20other%20resources.&text=Low%20food%20security%3A%20%E2%80%9CReports%20of,indication%20of%20reduced%20food%20intake.%E2%80%9D

Jablonski, Becca B. R., et al. “Emergency Food Provision for Children and Families during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Examples from Five U.S. Cities.” Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy, vol. n/a, no. n/a, p. e13096. Wiley Online Library, doi:10.1002/aepp.13096.

Kinsey, Eliza W., et al. “School Closures During COVID-19: Opportunities for Innovation in Meal Service.” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 110, no. 11, Sept. 2020, pp. 1635–43. (Atypon), doi:10.2105/AJPH.2020.305875.

USDA ERS - National School Lunch Program.,total%20cost%20of%20%2414.1%20billion. Accessed 8 Nov. 2020.

USDA Press. USDA Extends Free Meals for Kids Through December 31, 2020 | USDA-FNS. 31 Aug. 2020,,financially%2C%E2%80%9D%20said%20Secretary%20Perdue.

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