The blog of the Urban Institute
July 28, 2020

How Can We Do a Better Job of Getting Meals to Young Children during the Pandemic?

The pandemic has overburdened and stressed parents of young children and put many of the child care providers they rely on out of work or facing reduced services, and now, parents and providers face new challenges as the economy struggles to reopen.

Yet few stories highlight how young children whose families depend on the food they receive in child care settings are being fed during the pandemic. This issue is critically important; food insecurity among families with children is high, and changes in unemployment benefits and other pandemic protections could worsen it.

Food and nutrition programs don’t reach all young children

Millions of children from families with low incomes receive food in child care programs through the Child and Adult Care Food Nutrition Program (CACFP). But the CACFP isn’t structured to adapt during a pandemic. Its reimbursement process requires providers to cover food costs up front—which, in the face of COVID-19, is challenging for providers with unstable funding that rely largely on parent fees. Even with new nationwide waivers (PDF) that give states flexibility in delivering and serving CACFP meals, these basic challenges remain.

Our recent review of how the CACFP has been meeting the needs of young children during the pandemic suggests there isn’t a comprehensive or single way young children have been fed during child care closures. We also see indications of gaps in services, with more vulnerable and harder-to-reach families appearing to be less likely to access food programs targeting young children. The experts we interviewed reported that families facing challenges accessing meals included the following families:

  • those with infants or toddlers
  • those with extremely low incomes
  • immigrants or children of immigrants
  • those who live in rural areas and/or face transportation issues
  • those with children or parents with compromised health

This is particularly concerning because some of these children are already more vulnerable (PDF) to food insecurity, and their families may be more likely to experience job or income loss because of the pandemic.

Many child care providers aren’t equipped to fill the gaps—but some schools are

Staffing, cash flow, food supply chains, infrastructure barriers, and the inability to change food preparation and distribution methods make it difficult to get meals to young children. We found that child care providers who did not have funding while closed faced particular difficulties, as they could not pay staff or purchase food. On the other hand, programs that retained funding during the pandemic (such as Head Start) were able to continue to pay staff, which allowed them to leverage the increased flexibility the CACFP waivers allowed for to prepare and deliver meals for young children. However, these “closed but funded” programs are likely rare.

While also facing some of the challenges listed above, K–12 schools may have played a stronger role feeding young children. In fact, though no hard data are available, the experts we interviewed believed K–12 schools may be the primary way young children have received meals during the pandemic. This is because the National School Lunch Program’s Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and the Seamless Summer Option (SSO), which go into effect when schools face unanticipated closures, enabled schools who chose that option to feed children younger than 5, even if not enrolled in their school.

Seven strategies to meet young children’s nutritional needs during the pandemic and beyond

To meet young children’s nutritional needs during the coming months of uncertainty and to build a more resilient system for the future, federal and state policymakers, school districts, communities, and other stakeholders can consider the following strategies.

  1. Prioritize strategies to meet the nutritional needs of young children in future pandemic responses. This means ensuring future policy and funding efforts to address pandemic hardships acknowledge the differences in constraints faced by families with young children and those faced by families with only school-age children, ensuring child care providers and schools have the funding needed to provide meals, implementing targeted outreach and supports to reach vulnerable families, ensuring young children’s specific nutritional needs are met, and understanding the need to build on all the systems that support them.
  2. Assess gaps and improve coordination. Include and coordinate stakeholders with different capabilities in ensuring families with young children can access meals during program closures. This includes programs and schools with access to resources like paid staff and existing infrastructure, child nutrition experts who can ensure meals meet young children’s needs, child care and early education programs that know the families to reach, and family engagement staff with skills and knowledge to ensure even the most vulnerable families are served.
  3. Improve funding options for schools, child care providers, and early education programs. For example, engaging the Federal Emergency Management Agency could help alleviate the challenges of CACFP reimbursement amid program closures.
  4. Expand service options to improve accessibility. Providing a blend of options, including grab-and-go options, in-person delivery, or the establishment of community hubs in areas where families with young children live, could make food more accessible to families who may not have access otherwise.
  5. Improve data collection on current services. Collecting more and better data about who is getting fed by these different strategies and identifying gaps in services could help reach more families and better target resources to underserved groups.
  6. Support parents directly. Options that provide funding directly to parents may help young children receive proper nutrition amid child care closures. The CACFP system could consider applying lessons from the new Pandemic–Electronic Benefit Transfer program—which enables states to enact emergency standards of eligibility for children who have lost access to free or reduced-price meals because their schools closed for at least five consecutive days in response to the COVID-19 pandemic—to provide meals for more young children.
  7. Extend waivers for food and nutrition programs and redefine school closures. Perhaps the most tangible policy solution requires revising waiver extensions and the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’S) interpretation of “school closure.” The current nationwide waiver ends noncongregate feeding after August, effectively barring schools from using this option to feed young children in the fall. Moreover, the USDA will only allow schools to claim meals served during unanticipated school closures under the SFSP or SSO during the 2020–21 school year—and planned remote learning does not qualify.

Failure to prioritize young children’s nutritional needs will contribute to the harm the pandemic may have on the healthy development of young children across the country. On the other hand, taking steps to address these systemic weaknesses could build a more resilient system of nutritional supports that will not fail young children and their families in future crises.

Ariel Skelley/Getty Images

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