Meeting Basic Student Nutrition Needs When School is Closed

April 9, 2020

With the announcement this week that Arkansas’s K-12 education system would not reconvene for in-person instruction this school year, school districts now face a variety of longer-term challenges. One critical issue is the continued distribution of food to low income students during the COVID-19 public health pandemic.

Some Arkansas school districts – five at last count – have stopped providing meals due to safety concerns, such as a COVID-infected worker, a lack of staff to cook or serve and other health concerns about exposure.

However, many school districts continue to distribute meals using limited-contact or no-contact strategies, such as “grab-and-go” pickup at area schools and direct delivery via school bus. Some are going above and beyond. For example, Fayetteville Public Schools provides enough food for breakfast and lunch to any child in the family under 18 – 10 meals in all, through a single pickup per week. Watson Chapel School District is delivering extra food on Friday that will last throughout the weekend. Additionally:

  1. Five school districts (Nashville, Ozark, Clarksville, Monticello and Clinton) have been awarded grants from Share Our Strength, a national organization working to end childhood hunger in the United States, to support their meal distributions while school is out. More are in the works.
  2. The United States Department of Agriculture has issued a nationwide waiver that allows Child and Adult Care Feeding Program after school-approved sponsors to continue to serve meals during this time. This waiver eliminates the onsite enrichment activity requirement, and it also allows for sponsors to provide grab-and-go meals.
  3. Other waivers also allow organizations to provide meals outside of a group setting. These include the Arkansas Department of Education’s Seamless Summer Option, as well as the Arkansas Department of Human Services’ Summer Food Service Program option. Schools have the ability to decide which program they will participate in. All other faith- and community-based programs and nonprofits can only participate in the Summer Food Service Program.

With nearly 285,000 students across Arkansas relying on the National School Lunch Program, leaders across our state are working on additional solutions to address this urgent need. For example, the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) programs, part of the COVID-19 federal relief legislation, allow states to provide extra food purchasing dollars to some low-income families to help fill the gap left by meals students normally would have had at school. Arkansas is currently developing the plan required to apply for this program.

Following are some helpful resources for additional information and innovative practices regarding student food service during this public health crisis:

  1. Arkansas Department of Education
  2. Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance
  3. Tyson Foods

ForwARd Arkansas will continue to share updates, as well as highlight opportunities for the development and broad implementation of innovative and equitable solutions that will ultimately strengthen Arkansas’ educational system post-COVID.

We welcome your ideas and examples of school districts in Arkansas or elsewhere who are successfully tackling the COVID-19 challenge with innovative approaches. Share them with us on social media or at info@forwardarkansas.org.