USDA makes right move to mitigate food insecurity with lunch program extension

Betsy Huber is president of National Grange, a nonprofit focused on strengthening individuals, families and communities through grassroots action, service, education, advocacy and agriculture awareness.​

The recent decision by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to extend the existing summer meal program to all students through the end of the year is a major step toward reducing food insecurity and the accompanying anxiety among school children and their families. This policy shift, spearheaded by Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, should be seen as one of the most sweeping and meaningful enactments since the start of the pandemic.

Through the National School Lunch Program, the USDA provides low-cost or free lunch to 30 million students nationwide. For many, these meals are a lifeline and provide critical food security for children across the country. With the extension of the summer meal program, this critical service will be available to all students. According to the USDA’s numbers, nearly 10% of households comprise both children and adults who are food-insecure. That’s almost 10 out of every 100 households. This has significant consequences.

According to a recent study published via Sage Journals, people who are food-insecure are far more likely to develop long-term health issues like cardiovascular disease. The 10-year study found that death from heart disease and cardiovascular problems was 75% higher among this population compared to those with regular access to food.

Eliminating food insecurity in the U.S. will improve the health of millions of Americans but will only be possible if we support all the links in the food supply chain, from our farms to our children’s lunch bags.

Not only do we depend on food production and agriculture to feed us and our children directly, these industries indirectly support our economy: The U.S. is the largest exporter of food in the world. The food industry literally brings foreign dollars into the country that improve other sectors of our economy.

At a time of growing food insecurity, we also should do everything we can to support the agricultural industry, along with food producers and retailers. These sectors combined make up our domestic food supply chain, which is an essential but often overlooked element of our economy. If food production declines, farmers and ranchers suffer, consumers are hurt, and grocery store shelves could start to thin out.

Companies like Tyson Foods and major retailers like Kroger are helping to slow the spread of COVID-19 by implementing innovative new protocols like testing and mask requirements, respectively, to keep workers and consumers safe, while keeping our food supply chain strong. This has benefits down the line, even to our free breakfast and lunch programs.

The customer experience is also changing. Publix is building plastic barriers at their 1,200 locations to reduce contact between customers and employees in the check-out line. Additionally, major big box stores like Walmart are implementing curbside pickup options for groceries to further limit contact between employees and shoppers.

Some 13 of the 15 largest school districts in the country chose to begin the school year with online classes only, and the state of New Jersey gave parents the option of remote learning. The newly extended summer meal program ensures all students now learning remotely will continue to have access to nutritious meals.

Child hunger is a very real challenge, one that is particularly acute as the nation wrestles with COVID-19 and its economic ripple effect. Providing universal free meals is just one step in combating the challenge. While the logistics of offering free meals may seem daunting, the success of previous programs has proven that it can be done, even on a large scale.

New York City, home to the largest school district in the country, started providing universally free meals for school children even before COVID-19. With nearly 15 million U.S. children living in poverty, these meals are one small but important way to help the food-insecure.

It is clear American students need to continue learning and growing through the pandemic, but they will not be successful if they are hungry. The USDA did the right thing by extending the free lunch program for America’s schoolchildren. Now, let’s continue to work together to keep our children safe and support America’s food-insecure.

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