Dispatches from the Potomac#33 | It Takes a Global Pandemic

This is a translation of an article originally written in May 2020 for publication in the July 2020 edition of the Marubeni Group Magazine, M-SPIRIT.

Washington D.C. Office General Manager, Marubeni America Corporation    Yoichi Mineo

COVID-19 reveals children’s food security issue in the world's largest economy

In 2018, over 22 million elementary and middle school children in the United States depended on federal programs such as NSLP (National School Lunch Program) which provide free or reduced-priced school lunches. When COVID-19 caused schools all over the country to close, those millions of children faced the very real possibility that they would have no access to food for lunch for the rest of the school year. In an attempt to avoid this issue, school districts decided to provide take-out meals for children of low-income families that would otherwise be unable to feed their kids. The Federal Government appropriated an extra USD 8.8 billion under the recently enacted CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act for the School Meal Program in addition to the already budgeted USD 18.2 billion. Furthermore, included in the CARES Act is a provision permitting parents who are concerned about the possibility of their child coming into contact with the coronavirus to instead pick up the lunches themselves.

In contrast to the Japanese school lunch system, where students eat lunch together with their teachers in the classroom, thereby educating the children about proper nutrition, food culture and the food industry, education has never been an integral part of modern U.S. school meal programs. In 1946, a year after World War II ended, Congress enacted the National School Lunch Act which had two objectives: the improvement of poor childhood nutrition, which had been the cause of a substantial number of draft rejections during the war, and the purchase of surplus agricultural products as a welfare measure for struggling farmers. The latter objective is the reason why the provision of school lunches (including lunch, breakfast and food programs during the summer school session) falls under the purview of the Department of Agriculture as opposed to the Department of Education. School lunch time in the U.S. is short – 25 minutes on average, which includes the time it takes students to get from their classrooms to the cafeteria, wait in line for food, and then finally sit down to eat. Consequently, many students leave a substantial portion of their meal uneaten as they are not allotted enough time to finish eating. This is, of course, far from an ideal system, and works counter to the first of the two objectives mentioned above: improving childhood nutrition. Nevertheless, in order to make school schedules more efficient, it is not surprising that lunch time, which is not considered to be strictly “educational”, is often the target of cutbacks.

Another issue with school meal programs is the underlying problem of income inequality. Depending on family income, one child may be required to pay full price for lunch, while other children pay a reduced price (average 40 cents per meal) or don’t pay anything at all. In 2018, on average, only 25% of children throughout the entire country paid the full price for their school lunch. Of the remaining 75%, more than 90% qualified for a free lunch. Approximately one in four children whose family’s income requires that they pay the full price for school lunch are able to choose between buying a school lunch or bringing their own lunch from home; these children will often browse the school cafeteria menu in the morning to decide what they want to eat. Some children prefer to bring lunch from home to avoid time wasted waiting in a long queue at the cafeteria. This is in stark contrast to the three out of four children who receive “free or reduced” school lunch. For these kids, the choice is either school lunch or no lunch. Even if they choose school lunch, they have intrinsically less time to sit and eat than those whose families can afford for them to bring lunch from home due to the time wasted waiting in line. Income disparity among families with school-aged children are often not as geographically dispersed as one might think. In Arlington County, Virginia, just a few miles away from the nation’s capital, one school, Discovery Elementary, serves free/reduced school lunch for 3.5% of their students, while at Carlin Springs Elementary, which is a mere 4 miles away from Discovery, more than 80% of children qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch.

The issue of school lunches and related issues like income inequality in the United States are not a new. But with the pressure put on school districts nationwide by the coronavirus pandemic, it seems as though they have once again jumped to the forefront of our newsfeeds, and are proving to be just as deserving of our attention as ever.