Meeting the Demand for School Meals in California During COVID-19

Experts at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health and Institute for Urban and Regional Development report that children in California may not be getting access to school meals during COVID-19, despite need. 

School meal programs are critical to addressing childhood hunger during COVID-19. The unemployment rate has surged upward since COVID-19 was first reported in the state; many families are struggling to meet basic needs.  

Even though schools across California have closed, many school districts have opened emergency food sites to continue to offer meals. In the state overall, 58% of students qualify for free and reduced meals. But during the COVID-19 crisis, the number of children accessing meals from the emergency food sites is only 25%-60% of the number of children who normally receive free or reduced meals at school.

To find out what might be behind this discrepancy and what is happening in individual districts, the authors of the report conducted in-depth interviews with staff at 14 school districts across the state and found three common problems: 

  1. The need is more than what schools are able to offer;
  2. labor and packaging costs have increased, leading to budgeting problems; and
  3. maintaining school lunch waivers—implemented at the national level through June 30, 2020, and which allow family members to pick up food for children without the child being present and meals to be offered at locations other than school sites, among other changes to normal school meal offerings—and being flexible about where and how to serve meals during the crisis is imperative to meet the demand.

The report concludes that “this means districts are trying to meet an increasing need for school meals with less revenue and more costs” and that flexibility in services and maintaining funding are both critical to address childhood hunger. 

Read the report here.