COVID increased childhood food insecurity in Louisiana, brought creative solutions
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted many community inequities, including food insecurity and how greatly children rely on school meals.
Feeding Louisiana, an association of food banks across the state, held an online panel discussion Thursday consider the problem and solutions.
Clarissa Hayes, a panelist with Food Research & Action Center, said 11% of U.S. households were food insecure prior to the pandemic, and that number jumped to 15% after COVID. For households with children, food insecurity increased to 18%.
Panelist Hayley Alexander, with the Louisiana Public Health Institute, said school meals account for about 75% of a student's daily caloric intake.
"We know people with children were hit harder by the pandemic with job losses and ... access to school meals," Hayes said. "So it's really important that when the pandemic first started, there was kind of a pause in school meals, and everyone had to get used to running these (food) programs in such different ways."
Many schools adapted through waivers granted at the national level. The U.S. Department of Agriculture allowed schools in the summer of 2021 to offer summer pickup meals.
It was also the first time Louisiana allowed the use of summer P-EBT funds as part of the Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer Program, which gave families cards they could then use to purchase grocery items.
However, the panelists affirmed that extension of programs into the summer was not enough.
Emily Chatelain with nonprofit The Three O'Clock Project said some children who need such food programs most are not enrolled due to issues of access and stigma.
"The kids that need those meals the most aren't the ones that are in that program," Chatelain said. "They don't have the transportation to that program. They're at home, hanging out in the neighborhood. So then they don't even have access to those meals."
Chatelain said the group was able to partner with select rural school districts this past summer to offer a feeding program to schools that usually didn't offer anything. The group handed out meals for breakfast and lunch on select days as well as went out directly into the communities being served. This helped solve the issue of awareness and transportation, reaching more families than before.
To help with the stigma of being enrolled in a food program, Chatelain brought up the idea of having impoverished districts offer free meals to all kids. There is a similar mandate in Texas where if 50% of more of students are in need of free or reduced-price lunch, the entire school gets meals for free, Chatelain said. That eliminates a barrier of a student needing to sign up or even just feel embarrassed to need free breakfast or lunch.
The panelists also confirmed that extension of food programming in schools benefits entire communities, not just school-age children.
Sarah Harrell with IDEA Bridge College Preparatory said backpack programs, where students get to take home backpacks filled with food items, can allow families to have enough to feed more than one family member or neighbor.
For example, if a student brings home a jar of peanut butter, that jar can last several meals for multiple people. If a family gets a surplus of jars, they might bring one to someone they know in need who lives nearby.
"School is just a touch point that we are able to disperse (food) within the community," Harrell said. "So I see that the benefit is beyond the classroom, that it's even impacting the community."
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