A new study conducted by Mathematica for the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) at the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, federal waivers issued by FNS provided flexibility that enabled child nutrition program operators to feed children amid challenges brought on by the pandemic.
When the COVID-19 pandemic public health emergency closed school facilities, where meal services are traditionally provided, FNS issued waivers of certain federal child nutrition program rules designed to improve children’s access to meals. Because of the waivers, program operators could use a variety of new and alternative meal delivery methods and options to serve children, such as walk-up sites at schools and curbside meal pick-ups. Program operators were also permitted to provide more than one meal at a time. State agencies consistently reported that the use of waivers improved services to children, often by reducing barriers to receiving meals and improving safety for children and families.
“During the early days of the pandemic, so much of the nation scrambled to keep critical services running,” said Veronica Severn, a co-author of the report and survey researcher at Mathematica. “We now know the waivers made it possible for providers to make the operational and financial adjustments necessary to ensure children had continued access to key nutrition services.”
The Mathematica study found that in the first summer of the COVID-19 pandemic, federal waivers enabled child nutrition programs to serve more children and more meals to children than in previous summers, bucking a history of lower participation in child nutrition programs after the end of the school year.
In July of 2020, the Summer Food Service Program served meals to at least 5 million children, which was almost double the number of children who received meals through the program in each of the five previous summers. The National School Lunch Program Seamless Summer Option, another federal summer child nutrition program, saw an increase of at least 18 percent from 1.1 million children served nationwide to 1.3 million children served in the 40 states that reported data for this analysis. In addition, in July of 2020, 175 million meals and snacks were served through the Summer Food Service Program across 45 states that provided data for this analysis, compared with 70 million meals served nationwide in July of 2019.
As the pandemic unfolded in the early spring, child participation in federal child nutrition programs provided by FNS dropped 69 percent between March and April. This was driven by a dramatic reduction in children served by the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program. Although participation in child nutrition programs was still below pre-pandemic levels at the start of the 2020-2021 school year, several waivers helped programs serve more children and more meals by September of 2020 than in the late spring, including waivers that allowed states and local program operators to administer the National School Lunch Program Seamless Summer Option and the Summer Food Service Program.
“Our study revealed how measures taken at the height of the pandemic improved access to vital nutrition services,” said Liana Washburn, a co-author of the report and nutrition researcher at Mathematica. “Simply put, these waivers kept more kids fed. We believe lessons learned in 2020 can inform how to improve participation and access to child nutrition programs during the school year and in summer months, despite the end of the public health emergency.”
Through summer 2022, Congress enacted a short-term extension for many of the waivers providing flexibility in how families can access meals.
This report is part of an ongoing study series designed to assess school meal operations each year to study participation in federal child nutrition programs administered through FNS. Data collection for the report involved obtaining survey and administrative data from the 67 state agencies in the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands that administer federal child nutrition programs. Future reports in the study series will share findings from later stages of the pandemic and how states and school districts transitioned to a new normal as waivers expired. More information about the study series is available here.