The only hunger a child should face is the hunger to learn!
A TIME FOR ACTION
Today, September 17, is Hunger Action Day, and as the CEO of a youth-wellness organization that’s been laser-focused on food-insecurity, let me be clear: the urgency of serving tens of millions of U.S. children dependent on school meals is as great as ever. 1 in 6 U.S. kids still suffer from food insecurity, and for African-American and Hispanic youth, it’s as many as 1 in 3.
In April, the USDA — the United States Department of Agriculture, which oversees school meals — extended its pandemic response, allowing public schools to serve free meals to ALL CHILDREN for the 2021–2022 school year, regardless of household income. In doing so, the government effectively established the country’s first-ever Universal Free School Meal program, a decision that brings stigma-free relief to millions of food-insecure families.
My colleagues at The Rockefeller Foundation noted the USDA’s remarkable extension, “This potentially game-changing innovation creates an opportunity to tackle a question that child nutrition advocates have long been asking: should we make Universal Free School Meals a permanent policy in the U.S.?”
Describing universal school meals as a tool both for better health outcomes and for racial and economic equity, Rockefeller’s report “The Universal Free School Experiment” emphasized that “School meals are so essential to child health that our nation’s retired generals and admirals are actively calling for more public investment in school food as a national security issue.”
I could not agree more!
THE SAFETY-NET IS OVER, NOW SCHOOL MEALS WILL BE MORE IMPORTANT THAN EVER
Exacerbating the challenges of struggling families, and potentially adding to the number of children turning to school meals, on Labor Day the expanded unemployment benefits programs rolled out for COVID-19 expired and the loss of this safety-net only further accelerated the pervasiveness of food insecurity among youth across the country.
According to CNBC, “more than 11 million people were affected by the cutoff, and roughly 7.5 million people have now lost their benefits entirely. What’s worse is that many didn’t find out they were no longer eligible until after their coverage ended.” CBNC reports that roughly two dozen states had already stopped the emergency federal programs early over the summer.
Bottom line: almost a year and a half after Congress came to the assistance of jobless Americans, that assistance has ended. However, we must never lose sight that schools continue to feed kids whether parents are home, or at work. The implications for child food-insecurity are significant — making the role of school meals all the more vital.
KIDS ARE STRUGGLING!
Though the general feeling is that we’re emerging from the pandemic, and in many ways we are, challenges remain. GENYOUth’s own recent student survey “The Effect of COVID-19 on Teens, One Year Later” revealed how tentative students are feeling about the current environment:
· 38% of students report their intellectual well-being is less than good.
· 47% report their emotional well-being is less than good.
· 50% of students report their social well-being is less than good.
Yes, these problems are addressable. But none of it means anything if students are hungry.
GENYOUth established the END STUDENT HUNGER FUND to assist schools in their extraordinary efforts to provide school meals safely to students as we emerge from the ongoing pandemic. In fact, it’s precisely because the USDA made its unprecedented decision to extend universal school meals through the 2021–22 school year that schools will need to feed more students than ever.
Our END STUDENT HUNGER FUND invites schools to apply for grants up to $3,000 per school building to purchase supplies for meal distribution and delivery. To date, GENYOUth, with the support of our partners, has raised over $12 million in cash and in-kind resources, which has supported over 10,000 schools. Yet 10,000 school applications still need funding.
How are schools using the funds? Our just completed survey “School Nutrition 2021–2022: Concerns and Needs” indicates that schools’ most urgent needs are equipment for cold storage of milk and other perishable items (48%), food-service staff stipends (44%), equipment for transporting or serving food or milk (40%), and cafeteria equipment for preparation of food (30%).
BOTTOM LINE: IT ALL COMES DOWN TO “HUNGERNOMICS”
The economics of hunger — what we at GENYOUth call “hungernomics” — particularly in the school environment, are complex. The USDA reimburses school districts on a per-meal basis. But the reimbursement amounts often do not cover the realities of the costs involved, even pre-pandemic. And with the delivery of school meals to classrooms and other alternative locations, along with the costs of personal protective equipment for school nutrition personnel, the gap between funding and actual production costs are even greater.
On average, schools run a 50¢ deficit per school lunch, and as much as 85¢ per breakfast, even with USDA support. When you factor in the reality of feeding 55 million kids as many as two meals per day for 180 days of the school year, that equates to almost 20 billion potential meals delivered this year in our nation’s schools. That’s nothing short of astounding — though not as astounding as the difficulty of overcoming the deficit!
As the school year starts in earnest, the spread of the Delta variant, pop-up infections flaring, vaccine resistance a reality, and possible shutdowns looming, all make it clear that the pandemic is from over. And while we’d like to think that COVID, and the food-insecurity challenges it brought to at-risk families, are in the rear-view mirror, they’re not.
The coming school year is going to be a challenging one. But we can make it less so, especially when it comes to hunger. The only hunger a child should face is the hunger to learn!
Alexis Glick is Chief Executive Officer of GENYOUth, a nonprofit organization dedicated to nurturing child health and wellness through programs presented in partnership with the National Football League and the National Dairy Council. Glick also serves as a frequent contributor to CNN, MSNBC and many other global news networks, providing her perspective on domestic and international business topics of importance, the financial markets and CEO leadership trends. Glick is a frequent, strategic advisor to CEOs for some of the largest international, blue-chip and Fortune 500 companies on issues relating to media strategy, business development, investor relations and communications and advises professional athletes on social media, branding, and public speaking. Glick, a graduate of Columbia University, is currently completing a book on the intersection of profit and purpose, which highlights her insights and experiences from the board room, finance, media and philanthropy, describing what leaders and companies can do to support the causes and issues of greatest importance, not only to their current employees and customers, but to those of future generations.