© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

In Pandemic, Many Students Lose Critical Access To Meals


As we just heard, schools are a lifeline for many parents struggling to feed their families - free and reduced lunch programs aimed to help students get access to nutritious meals. But when most of the nation's K through 12 schools shut down in the spring, these programs transformed almost overnight. With cafeterias closed, schools began handing out bagged meals in their parking lots. In the early days of the pandemic, this seemed to work pretty well. But NPR's Cory Turner reports that too many kids are now missing out on the meals they need.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Before COVID-19, Arizona's Tucson Unified School District dished out a lot of meals.

LINDSAY AGUILAR: A normal school day, we serve 35,000 total meals a day. That's breakfast, lunch and supper.

TURNER: Lindsay Aguilar is the district's food services director. When I spoke with her earlier this month, she said the number of meals served so far this year had plummeted by nearly 90%. That's because lots of parents and caregivers are back at work and can't get to the meal pickup sites each day.

AGUILAR: It's disheartening because I know those kids - you know, they still are in need of food, and families are struggling even more now than ever.

TURNER: Aguilar says she feels a huge responsibility to do more to reach those kids who need those 35,000 meals a day.

AGUILAR: Realistically, I know I'm not going to get 35,000. But can I get 10? Can I get 12? Like, you know, how can I get these families to come, or how can I get to them? I joke all the time, but I'm, like, we need Amazon Prime out of our warehouse (laughter).

ALYSSIA WRIGHT: We come up with ways every week to find a new way to get meals to our kids.

TURNER: Alyssia Wright heads the nutrition program for schools in Fulton County. Ga. And she, like nutrition directors all over the country, says she's losing sleep thinking about how to reach the children who can't reach them.

WRIGHT: Every day - I worry about them every day. I think about it every night.

TURNER: Wright and her team are freezing hamburgers and lasagna rolls so they can pack a whole week's worth of meals into just one pickup.

WRIGHT: My best day was last week.

TURNER: That's because Wright and her team were testing a new plan - to pack all that food onto a school bus to get closer to the kids who need it. Parents and caregivers were thrilled, Wright says, telling her...

WRIGHT: This is so great because we could not get to the food stop. We didn't have transportation.

TURNER: In Tucson, Aguilar and her team are also packing meals onto buses and delivering them at more than 60 stops. And it all matters, says researcher Lauren Bauer at the Brookings Institution, because 1 in 5 families say their kids aren't getting enough food, and they don't have enough resources to buy more.

LAUREN BAUER: That means that children are going hungry.

TURNER: And Bauer says the vast majority of kids who could be getting school meals aren't. While schools are doing everything they can to change that, Congress is also trying to help. In the spring, lawmakers created a program called Pandemic EBT. It basically took the value of those school meals that kids weren't getting and put it - usually a few hundred dollars - onto a debit card that families could then use at the grocery store. Lauren Bauer says Pandemic EBT reached a lot of families.

BAUER: And it capped between 2.5 and 3.5 million children out of hunger this summer.

TURNER: The program was set to expire by the end of September. But in a rare show of bipartisanship, the House recently voted overwhelmingly in support of an extension through fiscal year 2021. The Senate is expected to do the same.

Cory Turner, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIAM THOMAS' "INFINITY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.