The number of children receiving free summer lunches in 2022 has dropped dramatically compared to the previous year, according to a new report from the hunger advocacy organization Food Research & Action Center.
FRAC 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 nearly 2.4 million children, or 44.5%, from July 2021.
Breakfast participation declined further, with nearly 2.9 million fewer children receiving free breakfast on an average day in July 2022, a 61.6% decrease.
Participation plummeted in large part due to a delay in the extension of child nutrition waivers that expanded access to summer meals during the pandemic, according to the report.
The federal waivers gave flexibility to summer meal program operators, who typically must adhere to strict rules.
Instead of being required to serve on-site meals to children during a set time, the waivers allowed program operators to bundle grab-and-go meals for families. They also allowed summer meal sites to open in any community, not just in low-income areas where 50% or more of the children qualify for free or reduced-price school meals.
The waivers were due to expire before last summer. Last-minute legislation passed in late June 2022 extended them, but not all summer meal operators were able to switch from the pre-pandemic format they had anticipated using on such short notice.
“A lot of states weren’t really able to take advantage of the pandemic waiver extensions because they came in so late,” said Crystal FitzSimons, FRAC’s director of school and out-of-school programs, adding that summer programs were also struggling with supply chain issues and staffing shortages.
Nonetheless, turnout 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 last summer before the pandemic, according to the FRAC report.
Federally funded summer nutrition programs, such as the Summer Food Service Program, aim to provide free healthy meals to children when school is not in session. Meal sites are hosted at schools, campgrounds, parks, community centers, and other locations across the country.
The programs have been praised for filling the gap for children when they are deprived of free or reduced-price school meals. But they are far from perfect: before the pandemic, the FRAC estimated that only 13.8 children received summer lunch for every 100 low-income children who received school lunch in the 2018-2019 school year.
That changed with the waivers, which allowed families to pick up multi-day grab-and-go meals to take home to their children. The result: Increased participation in the summer lunch by 123% in July 2020 and by 101% in July 2021 compared to July 2019, FRAC said.
“These flexibilities for the summer meal program are as evidence-based policy as I can find.”
Lisa Davis, Senior Vice President of the No Kid Hungry campaign at Share Our Strength,
Lisa Davis, senior vice president of the No Kid Hungry campaign at Share Our Strength, a nonprofit that works to end hunger and poverty, called it «infuriating» that Congress would let the waivers expire after 2022.
“These flexibilities for the summer meal program are the evidence-based policy you can find,” he said. “They worked through the pandemic and really helped make sure the kids didn’t go hungry.”
Where the most summer meals fell
While participation in summer luncheons decreased nationally in July 2022 compared to the previous summer, some states experienced greater success than others.
Hawaii experienced the largest percentage decrease in average daily participation for lunch in the Summer Food Service Program, going from 14,170 children served in July 2021 to 2,094 children in July 2022, a decrease of 85.2%.
Next up was Missouri, which went from 130,001 children served on average in July 2021 to 20,551 in July 2022, a decrease of 84.2%.
The third was Louisiana, which went from 90,849 children 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 state not to opt for take-out meals during the late summer of 2022. While many program operators in other states were unable to distribute take-out meals after the last-minute change in waiver extensions, their states had given them the option to do so; Missouri did not.
Missouri community operators told NBC News last year that they saw a big drop in the number of meals they distributed — as much as 97% less than the previous summer at some sites. The FRAC 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 food programs.»
“We remain committed to ensuring that eligible children have access to nutritious meals during the summer months and that we have sponsors that operate appropriately, honestly, and in a manner that meets our very 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 are still fighting to reach the children’
Summer meal numbers are not yet available for this year. But hunger advocates fear that with the removal of the exemptions, fewer children will be served.
“Before the pandemic, we weren’t serving enough kids with summer meals,” FitzSimons said. «And as we come out of the pandemic, we’re still having a hard time reaching kids.»
There are some improvements. While takeout summer meals are no longer allowed in most of the country, they are now permanently allowed in certain rural communities thanks to a provision included in the omnibus bill.
The omnibus bill also established a Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer Program, which will provide $40 in supplemental grocery benefits per child each summer month for families who rely on free or reduced-price school meals. The Summer EBT program will begin in 2024.
Davis said that with rural takeout options this summer, efforts to feed children facing insecurity will be «a mixed bag.» She urged Congress to expand takeout meals to all communities.
“I talked to working parents who are pulling their hair out thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, how do I keep the air conditioning on and make sure my kids can eat?’” she said. «Because that is unacceptable.»