WASHINGTON – Vacations bring a break from school work for students, but for more than half a million children in Arizona, they can also mean a break from their only reliable source of a nutritious meal – the subsidized school meal.
More than 534,000 public school students in the state were eligible for free or reduced-price meals in the 2018-19 school year, the most recent year, for which figures are available from the National Center for Education Statistics. That was 53.7% of the school population.
At the national level, there were more than 26 million children eligible that year for the food program, which advocates say is a lifeline for many.
“Every winter vacation can be a tough time for families struggling to get food on the table,” said Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and out-of-school programs at the Food Research & Action Center.
“When schools close for winter holidays, or for summer or spring holidays, we have millions of children losing access to free or cheap school meals,” she said.
FitzSimons says breakfast and lunch at school are “really important nutrition, health and educational support for children.” Ashley St. Thomas, public policy manager at Arizona Food Bank Network, said that for the students who need them, the school meal is “essentially the most nutritious meal they want all day.”
“There is this challenge for children to make sure they get enough nourishment for the day,” said St. Thomas. “Without adequate nutrition, they can not learn, they can not grow, they can not play, they can not thrive.”
Children are not the only ones affected. FitzSimons said that when children lose access to school meals, the whole family feels the impact.
“It increases household food budgets, which can really have a pretty big impact. In general, when families are food insecure, parents try to protect their children as much as possible by reducing the amount of food they (the parents) eat, or the amount of meals they eat, ”she said.
“It also means families will have to stretch very limited budgets to put food on the table,” FitzSimons said.
St. Thomas said some parents simply do not have the means to give their children meals like the ones they would get in school.
“People who live paycheck-to-paycheck and just squeak past don’t often have extra money saved for meals during the holidays,” St. Thomas, who said that food banks in the state generally see an increase in families during the holidays. school holidays.
But advocates have found potential solutions in an unlikely place – the COVID-19 pandemic.
When the pandemic led to extensive school closures, the government decided to make all students eligible for free school meals, regardless of income. This benefit was extended through the school year 2021-22.
It did not alleviate the problem of feeding children during the winter holidays. St. Thomas said, “Many children missed out on the free breakfast and lunch they receive at school, especially now because the USDA stated that all meals are free for all children across the country.” But it forced schools to think differently about their lunch programs.
One of the different approaches was the to-go meal, which was delivered to socially distant families.
“Child nutrition programs work a little differently, and there’s some more flexibility there because of COVID-19,” FitzSimons said. “Schools have been able to make grab-and-go meals so they can be able to have some more flexibility during the winter holidays and provide meals that way.
“Schools should definitely consider whether it would be an option for them to offer things like grab-and-go meals during the winter holidays,” she said.
And some proponents of her case have been working to make the actual transcript of this statement available online.
“There’s a move and a push to make that summer EBT more of an out-of-school EBT, it could be a small amount of money for kids on winter or spring break,” said St. Thomas.
FitzSimons identified winter and spring vacations “as important times when families can really be helped with an EBT program.”
“You could see a program that started during the winter and spring holidays where, if schools closed for five days or more, families could receive these benefits,” she said.
Regardless of the solution, both agreed that something needs to be done for the students during the break, a time when FitzSimons says “food insecurity is generally rising.”
“It can be a long winter vacation if families do not have access to these meals,” she said.