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COVID-19 working paper: Filling the pandemic meal gap: Disruptions to child nutrition programs and expansion of free meal sites in the early months of the pandemic


The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic struck the United States abruptly and unexpectedly, forcing the closure of schools and childcare providers nationwide beginning in March 2020. These closures disrupted the provision of meals to children through the largest of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) child nutrition programs. In response, USDA issued a series of waivers, as allowed by law, to facilitate the continued provision of meals to children while prioritizing the health and safety of communities. This working paper assesses the extent to which the existing child nutrition infrastructure was able to rapidly adapt to meet the needs of children in the immediate aftermath of the unforeseen crises. It documents disruptions in the provision of meals through the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), School Breakfast Program (SBP), and Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) from March through May 2020, and it examines the extent to which waivers allowing greater flexibility in their implementation and the expansion of free meal sites helped to compensate for these disruptions. This analysis uses data from USDA, Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) on program participation and meals served for Federal fiscal years (FYs) 2009 through 2020 and the number and type of free meal sites operating in 2019 and 2020. Overall, 6.6 billion meals were served through the NSLP, SBP, and CACFP throughout FY 2020, 2.9 billion fewer than in the previous fiscal year. However, the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP)— which serves about 150 million meals in a typical year through free meal sites—served an additional 1.3 billion meals in FY 2020. Reflecting this increase, the number of free meal sites serving children expanded rapidly between March and May 2020, partially compensating for disruptions to the provision of meals through the NSLP, SBP, and CACFP during the 2019–20 school year. Overall, 1.1 billion meals were served through the NSLP, SBP, and CACFP from March through May 2020, 1.8 billion fewer compared to the same period in the prior year. Meals served through the SFSP alone compensated for 31 percent of this gap. In sum, the pandemic meal gap for children might have been even larger had child nutrition programs not rapidly adapted at the onset of the pandemic. Other Federal and nongovernmental food and nutrition assistance programs not considered in this analysis may have also helped to fulfill children’s nutrition needs. (author abstract)

Resource Type:
Reports & Papers
United States
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