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New report shows school lunch participation dropped by 30% during pandemic

The Food Research and Action Center compared meal participation across the 2018–19, 2019–20 and 2020–21 school years.
Students grabbing fruit in the lunch line.
Photo: Shutterstock

The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) has released a report outlining school meal participation before and during the pandemic.

The report looked at school breakfast and lunch participation across the 2018–19, 2019–20 and 2020–21 school years and found that participation for both mealparts dropped during COVID-19.

On an average day during the 2020-21 school year, almost 14 million students received breakfast and 19.8 million students received lunch. This represents a decrease in participation of 4.7% for breakfast and  30.7% for lunch when compared to the 2018–19 school year.

The report’s authors note that breakfast participation may have seen less of a drop than lunch due to lower participation at breakfast than lunch pre-pandemic and the fact that the nationwide school meal waivers have allowed nutrition teams to hand out free breakfast and lunch at the same time.

Some states actually increased the number of breakfasts served during the pandemic. During the 2020-21 school year, 18 states saw a jump in the total number of breakfasts served compared to the 2018–19 school year, and 22 states saw an increase in the total number of breakfasts served when compared to the 2019–20 school year.

When comparing the number of lunches served, however, only eight states saw an increase from 2018-19 to 2020-21. Wyoming was the only state to up lunches served when comparing the 2020-21 schoolyear to the 2018-19 school year.

FRAC researchers say that more can be done to increase meal participation, including implementing universal free meal and Breakfast After the Bell programs. They also argue that the 12 child nutrition waivers issued during the pandemic have allowed school nutrition professionals to safely provide children with meals and should be extended beyond their June expiration date.

“Childhood hunger in this country has spiked dramatically as a result of the public health and economic fallout of COVID-19,” Luis Guardia, president of FRAC, said in a statement. “But things would be far worse if not for child nutrition waivers, and the hard work of states, school nutrition directors and community-based organizations, which has supported access to school and summer meals during this unprecedented time.”

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