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Food Banks Face Rising Need Following Coronavirus School Closures

As of this writing, 47.9 million public school students across the United States are staying home from school because of the COVID-19 outbreak. With 22 million students relying on free or reduced-price lunches, a gaping hole will be left by the National School Lunch Program.

So far, the USDA has acted swiftly to make existing food assistance programs work under the unprecedented circumstances. Eligible schools can now put their USDA summer meals programs into action at no cost to students. The USDA has also waived the requirement to serve those meals in a group setting in order to promote social distancing.

However, not all schools are eligible to participate in the USDA summer meals programs. That leaves unaccounted meals for as many as 19 million low-income children whose schools serve meals during the school year but not over the summer.1 Those children would have to find their way to a summer meals site with a parent. But transportation costs, working or absent parents, and the health risks of public transit all pose barriers.

The good news is the recent House bill, signed into law on Wednesday, grants the USDA the authority to allow all schools affected by COVID-19 closures to participate in summer meals programs. The USDA is expected to take advantage of the provision.

But school districts across the country have already been closed for two weeks. And it will take additional time for states to implement other provisions in the House bill — like the Pandemic EBT (electronic benefits transfer) that helps students on free or reduced-price lunch buy groceries. In the meantime, families face uncertainty, financial strain and hunger.

The pressure is mounting on local charities to pick up the slack. Even if governments can piece together solutions for 90 percent of students on free or reduced-price lunch for the rest of the semester, that still leaves 154 million missing meals nationwide. What would it take for charities to provide the missing meals? By ImpactMatters’ calculations, an injection of $240 million in donations — based on the average cost for a nonprofit to deliver a meal and assuming no disruptions to regular food supply chains.2 If those donations were concentrated among only the most cost-effective charities, only $220 million would be needed — a target easily met if, say, all residents under shelter-in-place orders each donated just $30 of what they would have spent on a night out.

Food banks like Nourish Pierce County are preparing for a surge in demand. One of ImpactMatters’ Top Hunger Nonprofits, Nourish serves a community just south of the COVID-19 epicenter in King County, WA. “We haven’t seen anything like this since the Recession of 2008 when our customer base increased by 132 percent,” Nourish CEO Sue Potter posted in an announcement. “If history repeats itself, this number could double within weeks.”

Already, Nourish has had to drastically change its operations. Last week, it temporarily closed one of its mobile food banks due to possible exposure to COVID-19. If volunteer numbers dwindle, staff say Nourish could face even more temporary site closures. Nourish has also been forced to shift away from the “grocery store” model it prides itself on, which allows clients to self-select their items. Instead, it will be distributing pre-packed bags of food to minimize client and volunteer exposure to the virus.

1 The USDA reported 2,685,000 children participating in the Summer Food Service Program in 2019 (in July, when participation was at its peak), but there are 22 million students who pay either reduced-price or nothing for school lunches as part of the National School Lunch Program — a difference of 19,315,000 students. Participation figures for the Seamless Summer Option could not be found.

2 We analyzed 306 food banks, food pantries and soup kitchens that reported enough data on program costs and program accomplishments for us to calculate their cost to deliver a meal. Assuming the subset of 306 nonprofits is representative of all emergency food nonprofits in the country, a sum of $240 million spread evenly among them would provide the 154,000,000 missing meals (2.2 million children each served one meal for the remaining 70 or so school days of the semester).