Rebecca Wood didn’t realize she was food insecure until she wasn’t anymore. She credits the U.S. Department of Agriculture for that. Since March 2020, when the pandemic hit, the USDA has issued waivers to expand school lunch programs. This $11 billion program provided a vital lifeline to working families who were struggling to feed their kids during the pandemic, even when schools were out during the summer. Before the vouchers were issued, Wood struggled paying off her 10-year-old daughter’s school lunch debt. “Each pay period, I dumped a portion of my paycheck into my daughter Charlie’s school meal account. In doing so, I paid off her debt and added a few more dollars for future meals,” Wood told me.
In March 2020, nearly all U.S. K-12 school buildings closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the federal government’s National School Lunch Program, quickly granted waivers to increase program flexibility and accommodate the challenges of the pandemic. These waivers, which have been renewed several times, were critically important for school food service programs as the programs abruptly shifted away from serving meals in cafeterias and designed new distribution models to continue to feed students. Many school meal staff across the country created grab-and-go meals that families could pick up, which was particularly important in the spring of 2020 and the following school year.