It’s been a month since Governor Charlie Baker shuttered Massachusetts’ public schools to help slow the spread of coronavirus. Now, as tens of thousands of students in the Greater Boston area are at home with their families for the remainder of the school year, experts worry many children who relied on schools’ food programs for daily nutrition are going without.
“The reality is that free school meals provide some students with half their calorie intake each day,” says Allison Bovell-Ammon, director of policy strategy at Children’s HealthWatch, a national research policy network based at Boston Medical Center. “With the pandemic, not only are these children home, but many have caregivers who are now facing job losses. Food insecurity will most definitely rise as a result.”
School and other safety nets
The breakfast and lunch program at Boston Public Schools (BPS) provides all their students with free meals during the week, regardless of need. However, a staggering 78% of students in the system would qualify for free or reduced-price meals if it were based on their families’ incomes. The sudden school closures have left area nutrition-assistance programs scrambling to provide resources for families in need. BPS is partnering with Project Bread, Greater Boston YMCA, and other community organizations to continue its free breakfast and lunch program at distribution sites throughout the city. The strategy is similar to the school system’s summer food assistance programs that provide children with breakfast and lunch from June through August to help ease the extra financial burden on struggling families.
According to a report published by the nonprofit Share Our Strength, families spend, on average, an extra $300 a month on groceries when school is out and school meals disappear. The additional expense leaves some low-income families making decisions between meals and utility payments, food and medical care. The problems compound when medical issues arise in children as the quality of nutrition decreases in these households.
“The impact of malnutrition can be wide-ranging and long-term,” explains Bovell-Ammon. “Growth issues, cognitive development, mental health, and other behavioral issues can all arise as a result of poor nutrition.”
Boston Medical Center has been at the forefront of delivering innovative nutrition assistance to its patients since opening the Grow Clinic in 1984. The clinic focuses on providing nutrition-based care to young children diagnosed with failure to thrive. The addition of BMC’s Preventive Food Pantry, the first hospital-based food pantry in the United States, expanded food access to more families in 2001.
Filling the need
Recognizing the growing financial pressure on families that are most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, these BMC programs are evolving ways to expand their outreach. Thanks to generous donors, families are being given emergency gift cards for food. Grow Clinic staff are arranging prepaid deliveries through the online shopping app Instacart and helping teach families how to install and use the app on their smartphones. Social workers are picking up food from BMC’s food pantry and making home deliveries to people trying to stay safe from the virus. With the sudden rise in unemployment, restrictions at the pantry have changed, allowing families to come more often than the normally allotted every two weeks. BMC staff are also connecting patients to other city food resources such as Project Bread and the Greater Boston Food Bank.
At the federal level, the U.S. Department of Agriculture passed stimulus measures to increase Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to many families and suspended work requirements for some qualifying for assistance. The immediate need locally is immense — average weekly SNAP applications in Massachusetts have almost quadrupled since the public health crisis began. In an April 17 update, Massachusetts Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders shared that "prior to the current public health crisis, 1 in 9 Massachusetts residents received SNAP benefits. Since the beginning of March, DTA has seen the weekly average of SNAP applications increase by nearly 400%. That is from about 4,000 to 17,000 applications."
Although it’s hard to predict the long-term impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the economy, the available indicators look bleak. A record 22 million Americans have filed for unemployment in the last four weeks, including 527,000 Massachusetts residents, and even more low-wage service jobs are imperiled as the shutdowns are prolonged. Staff at Children’s HealthWatch are advocating for more state and federal policies to protect the healthy development of children from low-income families in the face of the crisis.
“As jobs are cut or hours are reduced, these families will have no money available to pay for basic needs like rent, groceries, or medicine. We need to continue to move quickly to assist those who will be hardest hit economically,” emphasizes Bovell-Ammon.