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'Children Are Going Hungry': Why Schools Are Struggling To Feed Students


Are kids forced by COVID to do school from home actually learning? This is a big question right now. But a more urgent question may be whether they're eating. About 30 million American kids depend on their schools for free or low-cost meals. And a new analysis says many aren't getting them. NPR's education correspondent Cory Turner has been following this one. Hey, Cory.


KING: How many kids are we talking about who may not be getting food?

TURNER: You know, well, I spoke with Lauren Bauer at the Brookings Institution. And she's been studying the results of this new household survey from the Census Bureau. And she found that among low-income households with kids who qualify for either free or low-cost school meals, only about 15% have recently been getting them. And, you know, I heard something similar when I got on the phone with school leaders all across the country. So for example, in Tucson, Ariz., the schools' Food Services Director Lindsay Aguilar, she told me they're now reaching just a small fraction of their kids.

LINDSAY AGUILAR: Every day that goes by is the day that we're serving 10% of our normal amount of meals. And that's the disheartening part is because in our district, 70% of our families qualify for free or reduced. So I know there's a need.

TURNER: Aguilar's now trying to meet that need, Noel, by actually putting meals on school buses and then trying to meet students at dozens of bus stops each day.

KING: Oh, wow. So that is a lot of logistics. How common is that?


KING: Are other schools trying things like this?

TURNER: Well, so the standard here when the pandemic began, at least, and schools closed is that families would generally have to show up at a daily designated pickup site, like a school, to grab a bagged lunch and, usually, a breakfast for the next morning. But as more and more parents and caregivers have returned to work, it's become much harder for them or their kids to get to these sites. And that's why school districts are, right now, really trying to improvise.

In Fulton County, Ga., I spoke with Alyssia Wright. She heads the school nutrition program there. She told me since lots of people just can't show up every day, she's been trying to pack and freeze a whole week's worth of meals into just one pickup. And now she's doing what Tucson's doing. She's trying to figure out how to fit all of this food onto their school buses. And she told me she is constantly worrying about hungry students.

ALYSSIA WRIGHT: Every day. I worry about them every day. I think about it every night. We come up with ways every week to find a new way to get meals to our kids.

TURNER: But this is really important, Noel. As they're trying to find these new ways, many meal programs - in fact, the majority - appear to be losing money. And some are even at risk of having to lay off staff soon.

KING: And in the meantime, 30 million kids rely on this. Can the federal government do anything?

TURNER: Well, I want to focus on one really interesting wildcard in this whole equation. In the spring, Congress created something called Pandemic EBT. It basically took the value of the school meals that kids weren't getting in the spring and it put it - usually in a lump sum of a few hundred dollars - onto a debit card that families could use directly at the grocery store. Now, Lauren Bauer, the researcher at Brookings, she studied this program. And she says it kept between 2 1/2 and 3 1/2 million children out of hunger this summer. But by Labor Day, it's expired now in 33 states. And only Congress can renew it. And that doesn't seem likely to happen anytime soon - at least, not at the moment.

KING: NPR education correspondent Cory Turner. Thanks for your reporting on this, Cory.

TURNER: Thank you, Noel.

(SOUNDBITE OF HYAKKEI'S "SEVEN-COLOR SONG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.