Free Meal Sites Expanded Rapidly To Provide Meals to Children During the Early Months of the Pandemic

A picture of children receiving a school lunch

Beginning in March 2020, the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic forced the closure of schools and childcare providers nationwide, disrupting the provision of meals to children through the largest of the USDA’s child nutrition programs—the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), School Breakfast Program (SBP), and Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP). In response to these disruptions and to meet rising food needs, USDA issued a series of waivers for its child nutrition programs to help facilitate the continued provision of meals to children while prioritizing the health and safety of communities.

One set of USDA waivers expanded the scope and coverage of free meal sites operating through the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and NSLP and SBP’s Seamless Summer Option (SSO). Typically, these programs provide free meals to children in areas or sites where at least half of the children qualify for free or reduced-price meals through sponsored, qualifying organizations (such as camps, community centers, or other places where children gather) when schools are not in session (student vacations of at least 10 days for SSO and 15 days for SFSP, such as summer break) or during unanticipated school closures between October and April. The waivers suspended the area eligibility and school closure criteria, allowing schools, childcare providers, and other qualifying organizations to serve free meals to all children in any community throughout the year through SSO or SFSP.

As a result, the number of free meal sites open to all children increased from March through May 2020 when, in a typical year, children would have received meals at their school or childcare provider through the NSLP, SBP, or CACFP. In March 2020, at least 28,987 free meal sites provided meals to children in need. By May 2020, this number had risen to at least 31,347. Comparatively, in 2019, free meal sites did not begin operating in large numbers until June and July, the months when most schools close for summer break. As the number of free meal sites increased from March through May 2020, the number of meals served through the SFSP alone also rose sharply to 564 million meals, about 457 times greater than the number served over the same months in the previous year.