There has been a recent spate of articles about several studies showing that a very high number of patients who ended up hospitalized with Covid-19 had underlying health conditions, with obesity being one of the most common. These studies are largely observational and preliminary, but have still garnered attention. At the same time, concerns about supply chain disruption and increased economic insecurity have also highlighted the need to prepare for a rise in global hunger and malnutrition. With this backdrop, as well as the announcements that many schools across the country will be closed for the rest of the school year, Healthy Eating Research (HER) held a teleconference for media on feeding children during the pandemic, which discussed availability, distribution, and nutritional content. HER is a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), which supports research on policy, systems, and environmental strategies that promote healthy eating among children. The call addressed many issues around feeding children during this crisis, including the following.
During a normal school year, schools across the country provide approximately 30 million children with free and reduced-price school meals. These meals provide up to two-thirds of these children’ daily nutritional needs. As of right now, however, 48 states have closed their schools because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and 30 states have announced that schools are closed until the fall. The impact of this on the availability and quality of food for children is immense.
There has been significant federal legislation to address feeding children during the pandemic. This legislation includes Pandemic EBT, where states can request waivers to provide SNAP benefits for the families of children eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, emergency benefits, where all SNAP beneficiaries can receive emergency benefits, funds to bolster new SNAP enrollees, and legislation to adapt the emergency feeding of children during school closures to encompass summer feeding nutritional standards.
All of these actions are taking place while the Trump administration is simultaneously trying to weaken nutritional standards for school lunches. In mid-April, a federal court struck down a 2018 Agriculture Department rule that reversed nutrition standards for sodium and whole grains in school meal programs.
Moreover, the Trump administration has taken action to cut down on SNAP benefits. The four major reforms the administration has pushed–including making it harder for states to request time limit waivers, restricting states’ ability to make families categorically eligible based on their eligibility for another program, standardizing the method for determining state allowances, and denying noncitizens citizenship or green cards if they participate in federal aid programs—are currently stalled during the pandemic.
Dr. Sara Bleich, Professor of Public Health Policy at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health, estimates that the SNAP rolls will go up to higher numbers than during the 2008 recession because of the unprecedented unemployment figures.
More legislation is needed to protect children from food insecurity and the resulting health detriments, said Dr. Bleich. Dr. Bleich explained that we should look for the government to increase the size of SNAP benefits, which is a proven policy intervention to stimulate the economy and improve health, to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) for food service staff, and to provide more funding for school districts impacted by the school year closures.
Elisabet Eppes, MPH, Program Innovation Director at the National WIC Association, spoke about how the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program is adapting to the pandemic. WIC is a special supplemental nutrition program for pregnant and postpartum women, and their infants and small children. It is a federal program, administered and run by states, that provides nutrition education, health care referrals, breast feeding support, and nutrition funding. It is provided through paper vouchers and electronic benefit cards.
The WIC program is facing steep challenges during the pandemic. Many WIC office are closed as the staff helps with other pandemic-related tasks. WIC participants are having trouble acquiring WIC food because of food supply problems at grocery stores. At the same time, more families need WIC right now because of increased unemployment. WIC agencies are adapting to the pandemic, and legislation has been passed and is pending to provide the program with extra money and to ease administrative requirements. Moreover, states are exploring possibilities for online orders and curbside pickups.
The impact of the pandemic on feeding children is immense, and its effects will be felt for years to come, on our nation’s public health and on its economy. These issues are of critical importance.