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National School Lunch Program Still Important Part of Safety Net

Lestina Dongo and Lindsay Monte

Recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) shows that in 2019, prior to the pandemic, roughly 33.2 million children received school meals, including about 21.3 million who received free school lunches.

However, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States a year later, it disrupted many facets of life, including closing schools for many and jeopardizing access to school meals. 

As new policies were enacted in response to COVID-19, such as expanded eligibility for school lunch programs, food insecurity in households with children declined.

According to the Census Bureau’s experimental Household Pulse Survey (HPS), roughly 20% of at-risk households with children reported being food insecure — defined as sometimes or often not having enough to eat — in the early weeks of the pandemic, when many schools were closed.

But as new policies were enacted in response to COVID-19, such as expanded eligibility for school lunch programs, food insecurity in households with children declined.

New School Meal Policies During COVID

There were many policy changes designed to compensate for the loss of school meals due to pandemic-related school closures. Among them:

As these policies were implemented throughout the pandemic, food insecurity in households with children declined.  

The decline is likely due in part to improving economic circumstances over the course of the pandemic (as well as the Child Tax Credit and stimulus payments). But our research shows that the change in food security still holds true when we control for economic variables.

Among households with children facing economic insecurity — defined here as those in which an adult indicated concern about their ability to pay the next month’s rent or mortgage — food insecurity fell by about 7 percentage points between the start of the pandemic (21.3% in April/May of 2020) and summer 2021 (14.2% in July/August 2021) when the most recent USDA policy changes were implemented. 

Between summer 2021 and the back-to-school period in the fall, food insecurity levels among these at-risk households were not significantly different.

Free Meals for All Changed Who Receives Meals

When most kids returned to school last fall, school meal receipt looked more like it did pre-pandemic. HPS data collected December 1-13, 2021, show that 18.3 million school-enrolled children were reported to be receiving free meals at school. 

However, expanded eligibility and availability changed who received school meals in the fall of 2021, which included some higher income households.

For example, roughly 58% of HPS households that received free school meals owned their homes in December, 2021, compared to 47% of SIPP householders in homes receiving free or reduced-price meals in 2019.  

School Meals Still Part of Safety Net

These same HPS data show that although more households had access to free school meals during the pandemic, receipt was still higher in households that demonstrated financial need.

For example, roughly 39% of all households with children in school reported their child was receiving free school meals in December. However, 54% of households with kids that received funds from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, a means-tested food assistance program, reported receiving school meals. 

Roughly half of adults in households with kids that reported difficulty meeting expenses reported receiving free school meals. The same was true of households with kids in which adults reported borrowing from friends and family to make ends meet.

Note that the estimates for SNAP households and households that borrowed to make ends meet was not significantly different.

 

Households With School-Enrolled Kids Receiving Free School Meals

Families Benefit From Program Expansions

HPS data also show the extent to which families continued to rely on pandemic-related expanded national school meals programs. In December 2021:

  • Roughly 15 million children ate meals on-site, at school or other locations.
  • Over 5 million children picked up meals at school or other locations. 
  • Roughly 12 million school-enrolled children ages 5-18 received assistance through the expanded SNAP/P-EBT program.   

About the Data

The HPS is designed to provide near real-time data on how the pandemic is affecting people’s lives. 

Information on the methodology and reliability of these estimates can be found in the source and accuracy statements for each data release.

Part of the Census Bureau’s Experimental Data Product series, the HPS was designed to have low respondent burden, provide quick turnaround on product releases and produce estimates that meet urgent public needs.

Most HPS data used in this analysis come from HPS Week 40, which was collected between December 1-13, 2021. However, HPS data used to make comparisons over time come from pooled collection periods that are reweighted to account for the pooling. 

Data used here to describe the "early weeks of the pandemic" come from HPS Weeks 1-4. Data used to describe the summer of 2021 come from HPS Weeks 33-36, and data covering fall of 2021 come from HPS Weeks 37-40. (Note that collection periods after Week 12 are generally two weeks in length, but the HPS continues to refer to collection periods as "week" for continuity with earlier collections.) 

The dates, sample sizes and response rates for all these collections are as follows:

 

Household Pulse Survey Impact of Pandemic Data

 

The SIPP is a nationally representative survey of the civilian, noninstitutionalized population. More information about the SIPP, including data on receipt of food assistance programs, is available on the SIPP website. Source and accuracy statements are available on the technical documentation page.

SIPP data about school meal receipt in 2019 were collected for the calendar year and therefore include more than one school year. In contrast, the HPS asks about school meal receipt in the prior seven days.

 

Lestina Dongo and Lindsay Monte are researchers in the Census Bureau’s Social, Economic, and Housing Statistics Division.

 

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