First, Jill Carey and her children fell ill. Then they got hungry.
When the family caught COVID-19 in early December, Carey’s son and daughter had to self-isolate at their home in Pennsylvania for two weeks. It meant missing school – and the cut-price lunches children rely on.
“I felt like I was rationing myself,” said Carey, a 39-year-old single mother. “I have a loaf of bread. You have to make the loaf of bread last all week.
Low-income American families, already burdened by soaring food inflation and the lasting economic blow of the pandemic, now face a new set of challenges when it comes to feeding their children. Intermittent, often unpredictable interruptions to schooling can also mean the loss of access to free and subsidized school meals that have long been a cornerstone of US efforts to address childhood hunger.
At the height of January’s omicron wave, at least 7,462 US public schools suspended in-person learning, according to data firm Burbio Inc. And throughout the school year, many students were sent home. them to self-isolate for a week or more after arrival. with the virus or after close contact with an infected peer or staff member – even when the schools themselves have remained open.
While many schools offered “to-go” options for free and undersized meals, they can be incredibly hard to access for working parents. This usually means bringing an adult to school for a short period of time to pick up lunches. For a low-wage worker, that might mean having to take unpaid time off just to pick up lunch for their child. And if children are not quarantined at school due to illness, adult family members may also be sick.
“The problem is that people can’t take time off work to go to school. That’s when meals are available, and it has to do with the school schedule and the cafeteria staff who pack the meal,” said Laurie Taylor-Mitchell, president of the network of Baltimore County Student Support, which provides support to poor students in Maryland County. .
Hunger is on the rise again in the United States after a period of temporary relief during the summer months. The situation of school closures and quarantines adds to the pile of hardships hanging over low-income families amid the omicron wave and the withdrawal of federal programs like extended unemployment benefits. Food prices in January rose 7% from a year ago, the most since 1981. And the Biden administration’s expanded child tax credit, which has helped lift millions of families of poverty, expired at the end of 2021. Democrats’ hopes of extending the tax credits are fading with the prospects of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better economic agenda.
In early January, more than 10.4 million households with children had not had enough food in the previous seven days, according to a US census. That’s 700,000 more families than a month earlier and 1.2 million more than in October.
At Murphy’s Giving Market, a local food bank just outside Philadelphia in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, the number of families looking for food jumped in early January as schools closed for COVID outbreaks, Desiree said. La Marr-Murphy, the founder. Many parents did not know where to go for school meals, she said. Although the Philadelphia school system posted information about temporary distribution centers on its website, families were often unaware of the option.
“They were asking me how they managed to get meals while schools were closed. I had no answers,” La Marr-Murphy said.
Meals distributed by Murphy’s Giving Market proved essential for single mother Carey and her children. A co-worker brought groceries from the food bank to her family. Her sister also shared a few errands. It helped soften the blow of skipped school meals. It was enough for her children “not to be malnourished”, but she still had to tell them “no” when they were hungry for more, she said.
“It makes you feel bad,” Carey said. “It makes you feel bad as a parent.”
On average, 29.6 million children received free or reduced-price lunches each school day during the 2019 federal fiscal year. About half of them also ate breakfast. And that’s not counting children like Carey, who receive low-cost meals from their Catholic schools rather than the federal program.
Earlier in the pandemic, school systems struggled to maintain food aid as they shifted to virtual learning. Many set up distribution centers where families could pick up days or even a week’s worth of meals. Some districts have even sent school buses full of meals to distribute at stops. Congress funded a program to replace missed school lunches with a benefit modeled after food stamps that families could use to buy groceries.
Now that disruptions have become more unpredictable, it’s harder for schools to keep up.
Only 43% of school districts offered or planned to offer meals to quarantined students, according to a November survey by the School Nutrition Association, a professional organization of school food service managers. Schools are juggling meal service, staffing shortages and the additional demands of health protocols.
“We are constantly reaching out to parents to cover every household in the school system,” said Larry Wade, director of school nutrition services at Chesapeake Public Schools in Virginia, where families facing disruption can take five days of meals on Tuesdays. . and Thursday between 3:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.
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It’s a struggle to ensure that all the necessary meals are prepared in the midst of a labor shortage. In Chesapeake, Wade is short by about 60 cafeteria workers and 25 dining room monitors across the district. A high school cafeteria prepared meals for 1,550 students with a staff of five.
“It was virtually unheard of before COVID,” Wade said.
Meanwhile, the federal pandemic food benefits that have supported many families in 2020 and part of 2021 have not been available in most countries so far this school year. It’s logistically complicated for state agencies that administer food stamps to monitor sporadic school closures to determine benefit payments, let alone COVID-related absences for individual students. Although the Biden administration renewed the program, only 13 states had a federally approved plan as of Feb. 8.
“A lot of kids miss a lot of school because of quarantine and isolation protocols,” said Diane Schanzenbach, a social policy professor at Northwestern University who studies child poverty. “These are the front lines of the fight against hunger.”
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