In the News: Filling the school meal gap

One early pandemic image is seared into our nation's consciousness: miles of cars lined up at food pantries. Parents newly unemployed and kids suddenly without school meals instantly understood what "food insecurity" meant. Millions were suddenly unsure where they might find their next meal.

One in 5 people in Illinois now struggle with hunger. The systemic racism that led to so many COVID-related deaths among Black people is reflected in data compiled by Northwestern University: 32 percent of all Black families with children are now food insecure. We've seen it at Beyond Hunger, the direct service agency where I work. Our Kids Summer Meals site is serving twice as many as last year.

As many return to virtual school, kids facing loss of meals are likely to fall further behind their food-secure contemporaries. Without nutritious food, the brain centers focused on language, attention, memory, decision-making and problem-solving can be permanently altered. If you haven't had a meal since yesterday's lunch, your chances of remembering the theorem needed to solve a geometry problem this morning go way down.

Prior to COVID, the USDA's National School Lunch Program provided daily lunches to 30 million children, and nearly three-quarters were free or reduced-price meals for low-income students. When COVID closed schools, districts responded quickly, creatively and heroically to implement "grab and go" models where parents could pick up meals in parking lots or community hubs. The USDA issued a series of waivers granting flexibility in how meals could be prepared and served. By foregrounding the needs of children above bureaucratic imperatives, they provided a genuine lifeline to kids.

The value of these meals to all children is profound. Kids who eat school meals consume more fruits and vegetables both at school and at home. School meals are associated with positive impacts on mental health, including reductions in anxiety and depression. And the impact lasts. Numerous studies show that consistent participation in school meal programs generates long-term benefits including greater adult educational attainment and lifetime earnings.

The Greater Chicago Food Depository's COVID-19 Data Map shows the dramatic growth in food insecurity during the pandemic, noting that the rate has doubled overall and tripled among households with children. Ensuring that all kids continue to receive school meals—even when schools are closed—is one critical way we can stem the tide of child hunger.

Michele Zurakowski is executive director of Beyond Hunger in Oak Park.