Many students were able to continue receiving school meals in recent summers as a result of loosened government rules during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the number of free lunches served has dropped since peaking in 2020.

The summer sites offer healthy foods to provide the needed nourishment lacking for many students when school is out. The number of students receiving free lunches in 2022 dropped slightly from the elevated years following the pandemic, but is still above July 2019 levels, according to a new report from the Food Research & Action Center.

FRAC’s Hunger Doesn’t Take a Vacation: Summer Nutrition Status Report shows 3 million children received free lunch through USDA’s Summer Nutrition Programs on an average day in July 2022, down 44.5% from the high of 5.59 million children in July 2020. Last year’s participation was slightly higher than pre-pandemic levels with an additional 201,549 additional children receiving free meals around the country, FRAC reported.

Clarissa Hayes, deputy director of FRAC's school and out-of-school program team, said before the pandemic FRAC always had a goal of every state reaching 40 children with summer lunch for every 100 children who received free or reduced-price lunch in the prior school year.

“We always had around five states that were reaching that benchmark,” Hayes said of past years, yet no state met the FRAC goal in the summer of 2022.

 New Jersey had the highest participation at 35.3 students out of 100, followed by Vermont at 27.6, New Mexico at 22.8 and Maryland at 10.5.

The latest report says that on average only 1 of every 11 students received free summer lunches compared to those who received free lunches during the school year. “Forty-four states and the District of Columbia provided summer lunch to fewer than one child for every five children from households who participated in school year lunch,” the report says. 

Before the pandemic, at least 50% of the children in a geographic area had to be eligible for free or reduced-price school meals to qualify as a summer meal site. Once a site was determined eligible, all students who came to the site could receive free food. When the pandemic was in effect, USDA allowed nationwide waivers to allow any community to offer free meal sites regardless of the previous area eligibility requirements.

Hayes said those waivers as well as the universal free lunches during the pandemic helped broaden the reach of the program. Eliminating the limitations on sites only in those high-need areas, she added, was a “game changer for increasing participation in summer meals.”

LunchBunchVan.jpgWith the sign 'Lunch Bunch' proudly displayed on the van, it displays the growing partnerships local communities and schools offer to deliver food in USDA’s Summer Feeding Program. This site, near a local community swimming pool in Ohio, attracts between 40 and 60 children each day with a free lunch.

FRAC said between 2021 and 2022, 11,000 fewer sites nationwide operated as the waiver status was unknown heading into the summer; Congress didn’t extend the waivers until the end of June 2022. Although the lower number of sites can’t be tied directly to the changes in area eligibility, Hayes said “it’s safe to assume a portion of those were because of that waiver going away” while others may have faced staffing shortages and challenges.

Lowering that threshold from the current 50% to 40% of the children eligible for reduced or free lunches would also help expand the reach as many communities are on the threshold of not being able to participate, she added.

“We know that would bring in a lot of sites that had to be cut last summer because they didn't have that waiver,” Hayes said.

It's not clear what participation rates are this summer, Hayes said. "The waivers were not available for this summer, so operations have gone back to pre-pandemic rules. It remains to be seen how this summer will go," she said. 

Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations for the School Nutrition Association, said too many children live in communities who don't qualify to run a summer meal program.  

"Waivers to congregate feeding requirements allowed families to pick up grab-and-go meals if their work schedules prohibited them from taking their children to meal sites to sit and eat. SNA strongly supports providing greater flexibility for summer feeding programs," she said. "During the pandemic, school meal programs had the flexibility to establish summer feeding sites where they saw the need, greatly expanding access to summer meals for at-risk families, especially those with limited access to reliable transportation.”

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Another impactful change was allowing students to take more than one day’s worth of meals home for consumption later, something that more rural access sites offer. Hayes said this can provide more food to those who need it, but it also comes with unique challenges to ensure families have the refrigeration needed and can prepare those meals. It also brings a trade off when it comes to food quality and appeal, she added, as food may need to be more shelf-stable and potentially “less nutritionally sound.”

In the fiscal 2023 omnibus funding bill, Congress approved a permanent summer Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) of $40 per child for those who qualify for free or reduced lunches during the school year starting in the summer of 2024. The omnibus also allows non-congregate meal service in underserved rural areas.

The American Rescue Plan Act, the COVID-19 stimulus package passed in the early days of the Biden administration, also included some changes to loosen summer feeding rules. In that law, whenever a school year had a public health emergency at any point, students would automatically qualify for Pandemic EBT the following summer (including in 2023) if states signed up to utilize the federal funds.

Kelsey Boone, FRAC's senior child nutrition policy analyst, said seven states decided not to apply by the July 14 sign-up deadline to utilize the final year of Pandemic EBT. Of 10 states that had not signed up with the deadline looming, three states did so after a final advocacy push. She said some of that decision was driven by states concerned about the tight timeline, while in other states “it was more political” because the pandemic was over.

Boone said in at least some of those states, the “good news” is that at least some of them “have a more positive view on the potential of adopting a permanent summer EBT program.”

According to Hayes, two or three states held demonstration pilots with an EBT summer program with widespread interest, but limited funding, annually before the pandemic.

Pandemic EBT, she argued, provided evidence that it works.

“It’s one of the most effective programs when it comes to addressing summertime, and I think childhood food insecurity in general,” she said. “The pilot Pandemic EBT broadly showed us what was possible, and it showed that states could pull these together and they have the infrastructure to do it.”

Hayes said the Summer EBT has been a priority for FRAC for many years to help complement the summer feeding sites. “This will be key for those families who can’t get to the site,” Hayes said, but additional funding could also be allocated in future authorizations from Congress or sponsors to help get kids to sites.

“Summer feeding programs — like all policies designed to alleviate hunger — work only as well as the investments we’re willing to make in them," said Eric Mitchell, executive director, Alliance to End Hunger. "When Congress and USDA increased funding and expanded flexibilities during the pandemic, summer meal participation increased dramatically; when those supports disappeared, kids and families paid the price.

"The permanent Summer EBT program created by Congress last year has the potential to ensure that millions of children receive nutritious meals when school is out. We must continue to do right by those kids and the providers who care for them.”

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