“I just don’t know what we’re going to do. How are we going to get out of this? Desmond’s mother sat across from me, her son’s pediatrician, during his annual checkup. “The free breakfast and lunch at school has saved my life financially and Desmond seems happier and more energetic. If we didn’t have access to it over the summer and next school year, I wouldn’t don’t know what we’ll do to afford food.” As I sit across from her, I notice Desmond smiling, flipping through the pages of a colorful book. Unfortunately for Desmond, the meal benefits providing him with high-quality, consistent meals through the Seamless Summer Option (SSO) pandemic-era waiver program are set to expire on June 30, 2022.
Children, like Desmond, need constant access to healthy, varied and balanced meals and snacks in order to grow and develop to their full potential. Food, however, is an often overlooked component of children’s health. Limited or no access to these high-quality foods is associated with a range of poor mental outcomes, poor school performance, lower IQ, increased bullying, and adverse physical health effects, including developmental delay, metabolic disorders and obesity. Without access to food, children may have disrupted eating habits, reduced food intake, or increased consumption of high-calorie, high-fat foods.
Children in Texas are unfortunately at greater risk of food insecurity or lack of financial resources available for food at the household level. Here, 23% of children struggle with food insecurity compared to the national average of 14.6%. In central Texas, that number could be closer to 25%, or 1 in 4 children, according to recent studies from the Central Texas Food Bank. While children like Desmond have benefited from long-standing programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, the seamless summer option has been key to combating food insecurity, and by Hunger has been addressed in recent years by providing school districts with more funding for high-quality meals year-round, filling a summer gap experienced by thousands of Texas children.
The pandemic has caused our nation to face many hard truths; in the face of this adversity, many school districts, including the Austin Independent School District, have used SSO funding to provide free, high-quality, nutritious meals to all children during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, this waiver is due to expire at the end of this month. This means that incredible lunches – like the bed of brown rice with marinated chicken and pineapple pico de gallo, one of Desmond’s favorites – will no longer be available for free to all children during the school year. The consequence of not extending this SSO waiver could mean the loss of healthy, consistent nutrition for many of our country’s children in places where food scarcity and hunger are a palpable daily struggle.
Congress could extend this vital program, but there is a sense that the American people, especially children and families who have had to shelter away from school during the pandemic, want schools to return to “normal “. As pediatricians, as Texans, we cannot resign ourselves to the fact that hunger and food insecurity are the norm for our patients. We must implore our elected officials to consider children like Desmond in the equation when we decide to move forward with supporting hungry children in schools. We must continue to expand SSO, so that we don’t continue to abandon hungry children in a post-pandemic world.
Elizabeth Mann and Tyler Badding are pediatricians in the Austin area. They focus on the health of the child as a whole and regularly treat children who are hungry. Raising awareness of federally and state-funded programs that combat childhood hunger is a critical part of what they do and they are concerned about the fallout for children in Texas who rely on school lunches for food. .