March 9, 2021

The School Nutrition Programs — the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program —help reduce food insecurity, support healthy eating, and are linked to improved academic achievement and attendance. According to FRAC’s new report, School Meals: The Impact of the Pandemic on 54 Large School Districts, the shuttering of schools when the pandemic began and the variety of school schedules this past fall have dramatically reduced participation and changed operations in school meals programs. 

FRAC’s report, which surveyed 54 large districts across 28 states and the District of Columbia, examines school breakfast and lunch participation at three points in time: October 2019 (pre-pandemic shutdown), April 2020 (post-pandemic shutdown), and October 2020. 

Here are some of the key findings:

  • In October 2019, the surveyed school districts served a combined total of 38.8 million breakfasts and 62.8 million lunches. The reach of school breakfast was significantly less than lunch. 
  • In April 2020, the month following the shutdown for a majority of the country’s schools, 17.7 million breakfasts and 18.8 million lunches were served in the surveyed districts, a decrease from October 2019 of 54 percent and 70 percent, respectively. 
  • In October 2020, 18.5 million breakfasts and 21.5 million lunches were served. Between April 2020 and October 2020, breakfast increased by 761,300 meals, and lunch by an additional 2.8 million. Participation in breakfast and lunch continued to lag significantly from the previous school year, with 52 percent fewer breakfasts and 66 percent fewer lunches served in October 2020 when compared to October 2019.

Participation in school breakfast before the pandemic lagged significantly behind that of school lunch, which is why the overall decrease in breakfasts served by the district was less than the overall decrease in lunches. Many of the districts bundled breakfasts and lunches together, resulting in the total number of breakfasts and lunches served being more comparable to one another. 

Throughout the pandemic, school administrators, state officials, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have worked tirelessly to provide access to breakfast and lunch for the millions of students who rely on them. Even with these efforts, school districts, including those highlighted in this report, have struggled to provide meals to all of the students who need them. 

As the dust settles from COVID-19 and students return to schools, free school meals will play a significant role in combating childhood hunger. The economic impacts from the pandemic will reach far beyond the time when students return to the classroom. Schools will be continuing their work to overcome the educational inequities that have been further exacerbated by the pandemic, and school nutrition departments will be struggling to improve their financial outlook even after the pandemic.

With the majority of schools offering meals at no charge this year through the summer nutrition waivers, and schools facing major budget shortfalls, federal administrative and legislative action is required to ensure all students continue to have access to school meals. USDA should also make full use of its waiver authority and continue to allow schools to offer free meals to all students in the 2021–2022 school year. 

The new Administration and Congress should enact legislation that 

  • allows schools to provide free school meals to all even after the pandemic;
  • expands direct certification to automatically link children to free school meals; and 
  • supports breakfast after the bell initiatives to increase school breakfast participation.