States should replace grab-and-go school meals with cash to families

By Lauren Bauer and Diane Schanzenbach

Parents, even under shelter-in-place orders, will venture out to feed their children. But deteriorating economic conditions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have made it even more difficult for many low-income households, including those with children, to afford groceries. Food insecurity is on the rise, heightened by school closures and the loss of free school meals that are the frontline of defense against childhood hunger.

Children, their parents and school employees are today needlessly at risk because lost school meals have been replaced with “grab and go” alternatives. For a variety of reasons, from running out of food to stopping distribution during spring break, fewer children are receiving replacement meals than consume meals on a regular school day. In Fairfax County, Virginia, approximately 52,600 students receive free or reduced-price meals when school is in session. But the District of Columbia is distributing fewer than 20,000 meals daily during the closures. A study of low-wage workers in mid-March estimated that only 11 percent of families who were eligible picked up meals.

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