Friday, January 28, 2022

How COVID Made it Possible to Feed More Children in Maine

Days before the coronavirus closed classrooms, cafeterias, and much of the world for months, Jean Riley went to a school feeding conference that turned into an emergency session on how to feed children who are stuck at home.

Riley attended her portion of these meetings, but as more news of the coronavirus threat began to pour in, administrators worried and wondered how they could reach students who relied on services such as free or reduced meals.

“It completely changed the picture of school feeding,” Riley said. “The families were in pain. Everyone was in pain. ”

Launched by the federal government in 1946, the National School Lunch Program provides free or reduced price meals to children across the country whose families do not meet a certain income threshold. In 2016, the most recent year for which data are available, the program reached 30 million students. However, according to the Center for Food Research and Action, one in seven households with children across the country could not buy enough food in 2020. And school nutrition experts like Riley realized that a protracted crisis like a pandemic would only exacerbate the stress these kids were already going through if nutritious food was left out of reach.

According to Full Plates Full Potential, a state-based advocacy group, 43 percent of students in Maine have been ranked as the lowest food insecure state in New England for many years. Returning from an uncommon conference in their school district about 10 miles north of Portland and off the rocky Atlantic coastline, Riley and her team deployed their planned logistics. They set out to offer meals to all students, not just those who would normally qualify for federal nutritional assistance. Administrators had to cover the cost of new meals, pay staff, and buy more food so bus drivers and teachers could deliver school meals. Parents could also take food directly – an idea that might seem obvious, but bureaucratic processes that had occurred over the decades meant that funding was directly tied to the children who ate at school. Forcing families to fill out and return paperwork has also been a common obstacle that prevented children from receiving free lunch or lunch at reduced prices – not only in Maine, but throughout the United States.

READ MORE: Why the US is rethinking its approach to poverty

“We could offer school meals to children in their homes in many different ways,” Riley said.

This experiment – and what Riley and her co-workers learned – helped change the way people feel about the meal. Her state is now a pioneer in providing such assistance to families, as one of the first in the United States to pass legislation guaranteeing universal school meals for students in public schools for the next school year. Signed by Gov. Janet Mills in June, the $ 34 million bill will go into effect in the 2022-2023 school year following the expiration of the current federal exemptions to cover nationwide school meal costs due to the pandemic. Advocates argue that with reliable and equitable access to nutritious meals for two meals a day throughout the school year, Maine children will be healthier, more focused, and ready to learn.

Legislators can also strengthen government efforts, such as in Maine, at the national level. The Biden administration has proposed year-round food safety in its Build Back Better structure. The plan, detailed in late October, expands free meals by nearly 9 million children during the school year and offers each child a monthly allowance of $ 65 to help their families buy food during the summer. The plan expanded access by making the community’s demands more generous. If 40 percent or more of the school’s students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, the plan allows the school to offer free meals to all students and reimburses the school at a higher rate than it previously did.

When the House of Representatives passed its $ 1.85 trillion plan, it included $ 10 billion in baby food – less than the higher amount in the original proposal, but it would still provide year-round access to food for 29 million children, giving their families $ 65 per child. every month. The Senate is debating and is expected to return its version to the House of Representatives.

Recent food supply restrictions and price increases have also drained school districts – another reminder of how COVID has contributed to food insecurity. The pandemic has highlighted the urgent need for children to improve access to food, as well as how vulnerable they will be left without concrete steps, said Crystal FitzSimons of the Center for Food Research and Action.

‘Like summer on steroids’

About 300 miles away in Arostuk County, State Senator Troy Jackson did not understand why refrigerators were parked at the end of the driveway – one after the other – in his area during the pandemic. There were so many that it was “overwhelming,” he said. When he learned that this is how schools deliver food to students, “it hit me hard,” said Jackson, a lifelong miner who is the son of a lumberjack and a public school teacher.

Before COVID, Anna Corsen, director of Full Plates Full Potential, said one in six children in Maine had a food shortage before COVID, which the federal government said encompasses concerns about food shortages before the day’s meal is skipped. After the outbreak of the coronavirus, the number of children in the state rose to one in five, 40 percent of whom were not eligible for school feeding assistance, indicating “the complexity of food insecurity,” Corsen said. “It doesn’t always have to do with income.”

“People don’t realize that there are children who are food insecure in the neighborhood,” she said.

FitzSimons, who runs the Center for Food Research Center’s school and out-of-school programs, said the United States is experiencing a worsening problem of food insecurity when lessons are absent during the summer.

“When schools closed due to the pandemic, it was like a summer on steroids,” she said.

Shortly after the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020, the USDA introduced exemptions to provide more freedom in distributing food to students, as well as to cover costs and reduce paperwork. The USDA expanded and extended these exemptions in April to provide more flexibility “to increase funding, support access, and balance operational needs to provide nutritious food.” The move to waive the rules has suspended much of the paperwork that families and school staff routinely complete to prove a child’s need for government-supported nutrition. Child advocates say the process has brought the stigma and classicism of a cafeteria to school lunches, where children have to stand in different lines to get food, depending on how much money their family makes.

But these benefits go beyond feeding babies who may have been qualified before the pandemic. The coronavirus has destabilized the lives of millions of families in the United States: a family making ends meet in one month may face financial hardship the next, or combine multiple family responsibilities that make cooking dinner every day too burdensome.

“You may not always appreciate how the pandemic has made family life difficult, but by expanding access to nutritious food, you can ease the burden on caregivers and set children up for better results in the classroom,” said Brandon Stratford of Child Trends. national non-profit research group. Research shows that these programs are associated with fewer tardiness reports and fewer school nurse visits. “If you’re a kid and don’t eat breakfast, you can have a stomach ache,” Stratford said.

Back in Augusta, Maine’s capital, Jackson and fellow lawmakers began pushing for the law that school feeding advocates, including Riley, have dreamed of for decades – universal school meals for all students, regardless of income. School administrators will no longer need to chase down students who owe their lunch. Parents no longer need to fill out eligibility forms that might have been lost on the way to school, and students could eat wholesome food without the stigma associated with their eating.

“People understood the value of this and how much better the kids could learn if they weren’t hungry,” Jackson said.

At Windham, school lunch attendance has increased from 1,500 students before the pandemic to over 2,200, Riley said. Teachers like Elizabeth Moran didn’t need extra persuasion to know this program was helping children. A mother of two, aged 9 and 11, Moran teaches students in Windham whose families do not speak English at home. Before the pandemic, she helped them fill out forms to qualify for the National School Lunch Program. Many are in financial difficulties and “free meals are critical to them,” she said.

Moran said her own children were eating healthily thanks to the access to school meals that expanded during the pandemic. Daily feeding, dressing the kids and going outside by 6:30 am, “a totally crazy morning.” By eliminating money, time and effort from families, Moran’s students and children come to school less stressful and more focused on their lessons, she said. And since everyone has a right to food, they don’t have to worry about someone teasing them for something beyond their control by eating food prepared at school.

“Children know about [stigma]Moran said. “They see it. They are shy. I don’t want to put this on the kids’ plates. They are here to learn. ”

Despite the political victory, efforts in Maine have faced a new obstacle: economic troubles amid supply chain constraints.

In July, the School Feeding Association surveyed 1,368 directors of school feeding programs in the United States about feeding problems during the pandemic. Nearly all directors – 97 percent – were concerned that supply chain issues could prevent bulk ordering of groceries and planning for available meals. Of these directors, 65 percent cited this as a major problem. And 90 percent of principals in general worried about how staff shortages could make it difficult for students to prepare and serve meals.

READ MORE: Schools across the country are struggling to find staff. That’s why

At Windham, Riley said she and her team are having trouble sourcing major products. While planning the post-Thanksgiving lunch menu at her school, Riley struggled to find enough whole grain hot dog buns, and each bun cost at least 12 cents separately due to supply constraints — a “big” increase. Multiplied by 2,000 the number of buns she needs: “That’s $ 300 and only one piece of your meal is worth more than last year,” Riley said.

She is forced to compete with restaurants and major vendors for food for her school district’s students.

“You still need to offer milk, fruit, vegetables and pay staff within your budget,” Riley said.

While federal school food reimbursement rates have improved, Riley hopes that this year’s supply chain will be resolved next year – hope the new law can feed all children without the stress and complications of the COVID era.

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