The coronavirus pandemic saw increases in obesity rates in the United States for both adults and children. Disrupted routines, school closures, increased stress, and less physical activity and proper nutrition all likely contributed to excessive child weight gain during the pandemic. One notable change in eating patterns for children came from changes in nutrition requirements for free school meals during the pandemic.
In 2019, before the pandemic, the National School Lunch Program served 4.9 billion school lunches to students who qualified for free or reduced-price lunches from households with incomes at or below 185% of the Federal Poverty Level. Many children from food-insecure households depend on school meal programs for reliable, consistent access to meals that meet their caloric and nutritional needs. The 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act gave the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) authority to set nutrition standards for foods offered in schools and increased federal funding to improve the quality of foods included in federal breakfast and lunch programs. Researchers from Harvard University found that the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act significantly decreased the risk of obesity for children aged 10 to 17 years old living in poverty. They found that with the legislation, obesity prevalence was 47 percent lower in 2018 than what was expected over this time period for this age group. The study suggests that school meal programs provide an important nutritional intervention that addresses obesity for adolescents from low-income families.
School closures during the beginning of the pandemic disrupted school programs that millions of children rely on for nutritious meals. Schools had to abruptly change their meal distribution systems and adjust the types of food they were serving to accommodate the delivery of less perishable foods. These logistical challenges combined with supply chain issues resulted in fewer meals being distributed in the first months of the pandemic which caused food insecurity to rise among vulnerable populations.
A variety of federal policies during the pandemic allowed for flexibility in school meal programs, including the National Meal Pattern Flexibility Provision, which extended flexibility in nutrition requirements. Flexibilities were allowed in sodium limits, whole grain offerings, vegetable offerings, and milk requirements in school meal programs. To illustrate, many schools went from serving low-fat, unflavored milk to flavored milk due to supply chain issues. The School Nutrition Association administered a 2021 Back-to-School report and Supply Chain Survey to better understand the impacts of pandemic-related supply chain disruptions on school meal program offerings. The survey found that 70% of programs were limiting menu variety due to supply chain shortages and 69% of respondents found that serving whole grain-rich foods was a moderate to significant challenge because of the supply chain.
The decline in the nutritional value of school meals during the pandemic was an unavoidable consequence of administrative hurdles and supply chain disruptions. While school meals became free for all students regardless of income later in the pandemic, students from food-insecure households had the greatest need. As a result, students who relied on school meals for a substantial proportion of their food intake were provided with less nutritious foods during the pandemic, furthering disparities in food quality for food-insecure children. Black and Hispanic children have historically experienced higher rates of food insecurity than their White counterparts. During the pandemic, Black and Hispanic youth experienced higher rates of obesity than White youth. Black children, ages 6 to 11 years old, experienced a change in obesity prevalence 63 times the expected yearly increase during the pandemic. Hispanic children of the same age group had an increase in prevalence 40 times the expected change. Changes in the nutritional quality of school meals may have contributed to excessive weight gain for these groups.
The STOP Obesity Alliance supports Healthy School Meals for All: making school meals free for all students. Free school meals for all would assure that all children have access to the food they need to grow and thrive without the stigma of qualifying for free meals through income eligibility. Experience suggests that Healthy School Meals for All could reduce obesity and other nutrition-related disparities, especially for those children experiencing food insecurity.