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Number of kids who received free summer lunches dropped by nearly 45% in 2022 compared to previous year

Anti-hunger advocates fear children in need will have even more trouble accessing free meals this summer now that pandemic-era federal nutrition waivers have ended.
Kids on the steps at Dempsey Aquatic Center where the Cincinnati Public Schools serve both breakfast and lunch during the summer as part of a federally funded Summer Food Service Program in June 2019.
Kids enjoy free summer meals in Cincinnati through the federally funded Summer Food Service Program in June 2019.Liz Dufour / The Cincinnati Enquirer file

The number of children who received free summer lunches in 2022 dropped dramatically compared to the year prior, according to a new report from anti-hunger advocacy organization Food Research & Action Center.

FRAC’s report found that nearly 3 million children received lunch from federally sponsored summer nutrition programs on an average day in July 2022, a decrease of almost 2.4 million children, or 44.5%, from July 2021. 

Breakfast participation declined even further, with nearly 2.9 million fewer children receiving free breakfast on an average day in July 2022, a decrease of 61.6%.

Participation plunged largely because of a delay in extending child nutrition waivers that had expanded access to summer meals during the pandemic, the report said. 

The federal waivers had granted flexibility to summer meal program operators, which normally must adhere to strict rules. 

Instead of being required to serve meals on-site to kids during set hours, the waivers enabled program operators to bundle to-go meals for families. They also permitted summer meal sites to open in any community, not just low-income areas where 50% or more of kids qualify for free and reduced-price school meals.

The waivers were set to expire before last summer. Eleventh-hour legislation passed in late June 2022 extended them, but not all summer meal operators could pivot on such short notice away from the pre-pandemic format they had anticipated using.

“A lot of states really weren’t able to take advantage of the extension of the pandemic waivers because they came so late,” said Crystal FitzSimons, FRAC’s director of school and out-of-school time programs, adding that summer programs were also struggling with supply chain issues and staffing shortages. 

Nonetheless, participation in July 2022 was higher than pre-pandemic levels. On an average day, more than 201,000 additional children received summer lunches compared to July 2019, the final summer before the pandemic, FRAC’s report said.

Federally funded summer nutrition programs such as the Summer Food Service Program aim to provide free, healthy meals to children when school is out. Meal sites are hosted at schools, camps, parks, community centers and other locations throughout the country.

The programs have been lauded for filling the gap for children when they are cut off from free and reduced-price school meals. But they are far from perfect: Before the pandemic, FRAC estimated that only 13.8 children received summer lunch for every 100 low-income children who received a school lunch in the 2018–2019 school year. 

That changed with the waivers, which allowed families to pick up multiple days’ worth of to-go meals to bring home to their kids. The result: Participation in summer lunch increased by 123% in July 2020 and by 101% in July 2021 compared to July 2019, FRAC said. 

“These flexibilities for the summer meals program are about as evidence-based policy as you can find.”

Lisa Davis, senior vice president of the No Kid Hungry campaign at Share Our Strength

Lisa Davis, the senior vice president of the No Kid Hungry campaign at Share Our Strength, a nonprofit organization working to end hunger and poverty, called it “infuriating” that states lost the ability to use the waivers.

“These flexibilities for the summer meals program are about as evidence-based policy as you can find,” she said. “They worked during the pandemic and really helped make sure that kids weren’t going hungry.”

Where summer meals fell the most

While participation in summer lunches dropped nationally in July 2022 compared to the summer prior, some states saw larger hits than others.

Hawaii saw the biggest decrease percentagewise in average daily lunch participation in the Summer Food Service Program, going from 14,170 kids served in July 2021 to 2,094 kids in July 2022, a decrease of 85.2%. 

Next was Missouri, which went from 130,001 kids served on average in July 2021 to 20,551 in July 2022, a decrease of 84.2%. 

Third was Louisiana, which went from 90,849 kids served on average in July 2021 to 14,625, a decrease of 83.9%.

An exclusive NBC News analysis of all 50 states last August found that Missouri was the only one not to opt-in to grab-and-go meals for a final summer in 2022. While many program operators in other states were unable to distribute grab-and-go meals after the last-minute change in waiver extensions, their states had given them the option to do so; Missouri did not. 

Community operators across Missouri told NBC News last year that they saw a huge dip in the number of meals they distributed: up to 97% fewer than the preceding summer at some sites. FRAC’s report found that Missouri went from serving more than 2.7 million Summer Food Service Program meals in July 2021 to just over 411,000 in July 2022.

In response to the report, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, which administers the Summer Food Service Program, said it is “passionate about the mission of the meal programs.”

“We remain committed to ensuring eligible children have access to nutritious meals during the summer months and that we have sponsors operating appropriately, honestly and in a manner that meets our same goal,” a spokesperson said in an email to NBC News. “This is what will allow us to maintain the integrity and success of this longstanding program for Missourians.” 

‘We’re still struggling to reach kids’

Summer meal numbers are not yet available for this year. But anti-hunger advocates fear that with the waivers gone, fewer kids will be served.

“Before the pandemic, we weren’t serving enough kids with summer meals,” FitzSimons said. “And as we’re coming out of the pandemic, we’re still struggling to reach kids.”

There are some improvements. While grab-and-go summer meals are no longer permitted in most of the country, they are now allowed permanently in certain rural communities thanks to a provision included in the omnibus bill

The omnibus bill also established a permanent Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer program, which will provide $40 in supplementary grocery benefits per child for each summer month for families that rely on free or reduced-price school meals. The Summer EBT program will start in 2024. 

Davis said with rural grab-and-go options in place this summer, efforts to feed kids facing insecurity will be “a mixed bag.” She urged Congress to expand grab-and-go meals to every community.

“Talk to the working parents who are tearing up their hair thinking about, like, ‘Oh my God, how do I keep the air conditioning on and make sure my kids can eat?’” she said. “Because that’s unacceptable.”