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COVID-19’s Impact on Healthy Meals for Low-Income Families

The impact of the coronavirus is affecting every aspect of society and food security for low-income families, especially older adults and children, is no exception. As COVID-19 spreads across the country, more governors have instituted stay-and-home orders to help flatten the pandemic curve. As a result, most schools, childcare centers and older adult meal sites have closed. For low-income families, losing access to school-based meals and other services means losing access to the consistent and healthy meals they rely on.

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Impact on Older Adults

Even before COVID-19, more than eight million seniors faced the threat of hunger or malnutrition. Consistent access to nutritious foods is essential for older adults to remain healthy and vibrant. Now that social distancing and stay-at-home directives have become the new norm, this threat has worsened. In addition to adult care centers closing, nursing homes are preventing visitors during the pandemic. Many seniors rely on these centers and their visitors to supply or supplement their daily meals.

Studies show food insecurity increases the likelihood of chronic health conditions, such as diabetes, depression, high blood pressure, and heart attacks, among older adults. Maintaining food security during this pandemic is critically important as older adults are at a greater risk of severe illness and even dying. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 80% of COVID-19 deaths occur in adults 65 and older, who have obesity, diabetes, and lung and heart problems.

Less Access to School Meals for Children

According to Education Week’s Coronavirus and School Closures tracker, at least 124,000 public and private schools have closed – leaving more than 55 million students out of school. For many children, no school means less access to free or reduced priced breakfast and lunches. School meal programs like the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs allow students to receive healthy meals that are aligned with current nutrition science and based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Well balanced meals are help prevent chronic disease, optimize health outcomes, allow students to perform their best academically, and support better behavior.

As of 2016, 14 million students participate in the School Breakfast Program and 30 million participate in the School Lunch Program. The school lunch program is the second largest anti-hunger effort after the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). In fact, many students are eligible for free meals because they live in SNAP eligible households. Together, these assistance programs allow millions of children and families to eat on a daily basis. These meals aren’t just reliable, they are often necessary for some children to meet the recommended level of daily calories for healthy development.

Federal and State Actions during COVID

Federal and state policymakers have taken steps in the right direction to protect and expand access to nutritious meals during the coronavirus pandemic. States and school districts are thinking creatively in order to feed their students while limiting social interaction. Many school districts are setting up stations where adults can pick up prepackaged meals for students without having to check-in or wait in long lines. School districts rely primarily on cafeteria staff and volunteers to distribute meals to families in need. For example, one school district in Oakland, California handed out 25,000 free meals in just one day.

At the federal level, Congress passed and the president signed into law the Families First Coronavirus Emergency Response Act on March 18, 2020. This package includes important changes to food assistance programs during this public health crisis.

The law strengthens food assistance for older adults and allows child and adult care centers to operate as grab-and-go sites. It also gives the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) the authority to adapt meal pattern requirements if COVID-19 has caused a disruption in the food supply. The law also provides $250 million for the Senior Nutrition Program in the Administration for Community Living which will allow approximately 25 million additional home-delivered and pre-packaged meals to reach low-income seniors who are homebound, have disabilities or multiple chronic illnesses as well as caregivers for homebound seniors.

Under this law, USDA has the authority to permit state plans to make changes to their SNAP programs. USDA can approve state plans to provide families with emergency Electronic Benefits Transfer cards to purchase food if children in their households qualify for free or reduced lunch but are facing school closures. Coupled with school district efforts to hand out prepackaged meals, these strategies work to mitigate the reduced access to federally assisted meals.

The Act also gives states the option to request waivers from USDA to extend SNAP benefits up to the maximum monthly benefit amount and temporarily eliminates time limits on SNAP eligibility for unemployed and underemployed individuals. On March 27th, President Trump signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARE) which includes $15.8 billion in appropriations for SNAP and $8.8 billion for child nutrition programs. However, the CARES Act funding does not expand eligibility or increase benefit size.

For millions of children and older adults, these provisions mean consistent daily meals in a time of much uncertainty. As cases of the coronavirus continue to spread, it is important to bolster safety net programs that provide adequate nutrition to American families in need. Social distancing interventions will be in place for the near future; during this time, it is critical that the nutritional needs of children and older adults are not forgotten. BPC applauds the federal, state and local efforts that have taken place and encourages continued strategies to strengthen food security amidst COVID-19.

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