A new report looks at student access to healthy meals during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s from Trust for America’s Health and studies food insecurity among Florida children, including those who are enrolled in free and reduced-cost lunch programs.
WMNF interviewed Adam Lustig, a manager with Trust for America’s Health.
Give us an idea of how school meals are changing during the coronavirus pandemic.
“School meals have been something that there’s been incredible change over the past four months as we’ve been dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. With school closures and with the prospect of potential reopening or questionable reopening plans there’s been a lot of innovation that’s been happening at the school district level.
“And so there have been many school districts across the country that have set up meals feeding sites. There are some school districts, especially those in more rural areas, that have actually utilized their bus service to deliver meals along their regular bus route. And we’ve even some cases of school districts individually delivering meals by bus to students who rely on the very important school breakfast and lunch programs that provide them with sometimes their sole source of nutritious food.”
How many kids in Florida participate in meals from school?
“About 58 percent of children in Florida participate in free or reduced-price lunch programs which would also qualify them for the breakfast program as well. And that equates to about 1.5 million children in Florida. So Florida, as I said, is 58 percent. Nationally, about 50 percent of children qualify for free or reduced lunches.”
So for these 58 percent of Florida students, why do free or reduced lunches at school matter?
“There’s robust evidence that shows the importance of nutritious food on educational outcomes and cognitive development. For these students, many of them come from low-income households and may have difficulty in obtaining nutritious meals. So as I said previously, sometimes the breakfast and lunch provided by schools are sometimes the only nutritious meals they have access to.”
During the coronavirus pandemic has that made the need for these free and reduced lunches even more?
“I would say so. I think there as we’ve seen just the significant economic impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has played across the country, and we look at potentially more children qualifying for this upcoming school year. And so it’s incredibly important that schools continue to adapt to ensure that students can access these meals. But they will need support from their state and federal partners as well.
“For many of these school systems that are operating these programs, they’re only providing free meals. So they’re missing out on all that revenue that they would typically bring in from students who would pay for their meals. So they’ve been running at a loss. So we’ve been advocating for at the federal level to continue to provide funding to school districts not only to overcome these financial barriers but also to ensure the safety of the students who are getting these meals and the wonderful personnel who are providing these services.”
A lot of school districts are either uncertain about opening, may delay their opening in the fall or there will be some people returning to campuses and some students learning remotely. How will school lunch programs, for example, be impacted by all this uncertainty?
There’s a lot of questions about this. And I think there’s rightfully been a focus on thinking about how do we ensure delivery of education to students. But I think there’s this underlying issue which we highlight in our report is that there are, like I said, over 50% of children in the United States rely on these meals. We’ve seen, at least for this past school year, there is this program created by the federal government called the pandemic EBT program. And so this is an additional benefit that is provided to families whose children would otherwise qualify for free meals. That provides $5.70 per child per school day in order for them to actually have that money so they can buy those meals outside of school in a grocery school.
“Because as we look towards the fall we know that there are many different approaches that school districts are proposing as you had said, whether that’s a hybrid approach, sometimes being in school, sometimes not, completely online. But this pandemic EBT program that was passed as part of the coronavirus relief package only applied to the last school year.
“So it does need to be extended into the upcoming school year. In addition to being slightly amended because as the regulations currently read, schools have to be closed for five consecutive days. If we’re in a hybrid approach where let’s say students are only in school one week at a time or maybe two days a week, this benefit would not apply to them so that’s something we’re advocating for at the federal level.”
Also on the show, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL) joined us shortly after Congress heled a moment of silence for the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA).
Rep. Castor phoned WMNF from Capitol Hill to talk about Rep. Lewis’ civil rights record.
On Monday, for the sixth day in a row, Florida recorded more than 10,000 new coronavirus cases. It’s the 12th day since the Fourth of July the number has topped that threshold. Ninety more Floridians died in that day.
Castor told WMNF, “Florida has, unfortunately, had a colossal failure in leadership” when it comes to COVID-19.
On Monday the Hillsborough County Emergency Policy Group voted to extend its Face Coverings Order for at least another week.
We also had a guest from the #StrikeForBlackLives.
Trayvonne Williams is 19-years-old and has worked at a Checkers in Tampa for four months and makes $8.85 an hour.
And we heard a few minutes from last Tuesday’s Hernando County Commission meeting.
Four of the commissioners responded to a request that they denounce white supremacy. Commissioners Jeff Holcomb, John Allocco, Steve Champion and Wayne Dukes:
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