By Mary Kathryn Poole, Sheila E. Fleischhacker, and Sara N. Bleich, The New England Journal of Medicine, January 20, 2021
The Covid-19 pandemic has moved hunger out of the shadows in the United States. Record numbers of Americans, including one in four families with school-age children, don’t have reliable access to food.1 Congress has authorized several innovative programs and substantial appropriations to respond to this crisis. Despite these efforts, food insecurity — a long-standing problem that disproportionately places children of color and those living in households under the federal poverty line at risk for physical, cognitive, and emotional harm — remains an important issue. Key factors driving increased food insecurity include school closures, transitions to hybrid learning, and suspensions of out-of-school programs, which have cut off children’s access to the food sources they once relied on during the school week. While policy attention is focused on shoring up the nutrition safety net to support pandemic recovery, it’s critical to consider whether children’s nutritional needs are being met throughout the week and where gaps may exist, both during the pandemic and beyond.
Before the pandemic, the federal nutrition safety net included five major U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs aimed at alleviating child hunger. Collectively, these programs accounted for $86.3 billion in federal spending in 2019 (see table). Three of these programs support meals provided in educational settings: the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), the School Breakfast Program (SBP), and the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP). The other two programs provide benefits designed to supplement the purchase of foods that children consume at home: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). Participation in these programs helps reduce food insecurity. But more could be done to close gaps in children’s access to healthy meals, especially during weekends and instructional breaks.