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What Happens To School Lunch During The Coronavirus Pandemic?

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As the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States climbs above 3,800, schools across the country have closed in an attempt to help limit the virus' spread. But national statistics show that millions of children rely on the free or reduced cost meals they receive at school, so what will happen with school lunch during the coronavirus pandemic?

While Congressional legislators work to pass legislation that protects and supports school meal programs during the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, state, city, and school officials in affected communities have scrambled to roll out grab-and-go meal options in an effort to support those students who may get their only full meal of the day from their school.

"At the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Secretary Perdue is working to ensure children who are affected by school closures continue to get fed," a spokesperson for the USDA tells Romper, noting the federal agency has already begun issuing waivers to at least 14 states to ease program operations through things like forgoing congregate feeding requirements. "USDA intends to use all available program flexibilities and contingencies to serve our program participants across our 15 nutrition programs."

Millions Of Students Still Need School Lunch During The COVID-19 Outbreak

As of Sunday, at least 33 states had moved to close all of their public schools over concerns regarding the spread of coronavirus, Education Week reported. While other states have not issued state-wide closures, a number of school districts have opted to shutter temporarily. All told, at least 64,000 schools have reportedly closed or are scheduled to close, according to Education Week, which estimates closures affect at least 32.5 million public school students.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are more than 98,200 public schools spread across the United States serving 50.8 million students. Of those students, 22 million rely on the free or reduced price meal they receive at school to keep hunger at bay, according to the School Nutrition Association.

So Lawmakers Are Stepping In To Help

To help, lawmakers in Congress worked to add a number of different bills into the Families First Coronavirus Response Act geared at getting school meals into children's hands despite school closures.

Originally titled COVID-19 Child Nutrition Response Act, Reps. Suzanne Bonamici and James Comer's bill creates a nationwide waiver enabling school officials to distribute food in a variety of different settings and have some flexibility when it comes to meal components should food supplies be disrupted. The bill is geared at ensuring schools and food service programs have the flexibility they need to continue providing nutritious meals despite how closures may impact the traditional requirements of such meal programs.

Reps. Marcia L. Fudge and Bobby Scott's Pandemic EBT Act would give states the ability to extend Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to households with at least one child eligible to receive free or reduced-price school lunches whose school has closed. The bill aims to provide emergency nutrition assistance to students affected by coronavirus-related school closures.

A third bill, this one unveiled by Rep. Ilhan Omar, would allow the USDA to approve waivers from states regarding school meal programs that may increase the federal government's costs. Ultimately, Omar's Maintaining Essential Access to Lunch for Students (MEALS) Act aims to help closed schools continue providing meals for the students that need them.

The House passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which includes all three of the above bills, on Thursday following President Donald Trump's commitment to support the bill. The legislation is currently awaiting a vote in the Senate.

Where Can Kids Get School Meals During Closures Due To Coronavirus? And How Many Can They Get?

While the details of where students can obtain a meal during school closures differ from district to district and from state to state, many states are obtaining permission from the USDA to provide meals at off-campus locations. In California, for example, the state's Department of Education tells Romper they've been approved to provide meals at school and non-school sites, including at community organizations like food banks, the Boys and Girls Club, or local libraries. The waiver also enables schools to provide meals in a grab-and-go situation rather than the required congregated eating setting.

In Chicago, all public schools and some select charter schools will offer free meals to students from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday, NBC Chicago reported. To make things easier, Chicago's public school system said students will be able to pick up a food bag containing three days worth of breakfast and lunches at their nearest school rather than having to travel to the school they attend. Additionally, according to NBC Chicago, any student will be able to receive a meal, even if they are not a student of Chicago Public Schools.

Schools in El Paso, Texas, are planning to distribute meals to students in a similar manner with any student age one to 18 able to pick up a take-home meal regardless of their enrollment status. According to The El Paso Times, children can collect a breakfast meal from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. and a lunch meal from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

In announcing a citywide school closure and move toward remote learning, the New York City Department of Education noted that students would still be able to pick up grab-and-go breakfast and lunch meals at every building until schools are scheduled to reopen in April.

While affected school districts around the country scramble to ensure students continue to receive the meals they need, local community members and businesses have also stepped up to keep children fed. For instance, a woman named Lashana Williams in Seattle raised money to cook and serve students oatmeal and eggs from a coffee shop in the city's South Park neighborhood, CNN reported. And in Portland, the local restaurant chain Laughing Planet has vowed to provide a free kids meal to any kid who qualifies for Meal Assistance Programs during school closures.

What Kind Of Meals Will Kids Get During The Coronavirus Outbreak Closures?

What kinds of meals students receive is also expected to differ from district to district. However, the California Department of Education tells Romper that although school closures and concerns over coronavirus have changed how meals are distributed, meals must still meet requirements outlined in the USDA's Summer Food Service Program. This means, each school meal provided in the state of California must include at least one serving of meat or meat alternative, one cup of milk, 3/4 cup of a fruit or vegetable and one serving of grain. The California Department of Education also tells Romper that eligible students will receive up to two meals or one meal and one snack per day.

While recent coronavirus-related school closures may provide additional issues for children, including massive disruptions to students' education, there's hope they won't leave children hungry.

If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all of Romper’s parents + coronavirus coverage here, and Bustle’s constantly updated, general “what to know about coronavirus” here.