RELEASE: Closure of School Cafeterias leads to Innovation in Meal Service, but Shortfalls Remain

Long-term school closures related to the COVID-19 pandemic mean access to school meals has been disrupted, potentially decreasing both student nutrient intake and household food security.

Contact: Adrienne Carter, 

WASHINGTON, DC - Due to school closures, students dependent on free and reduced-price meals missed 1.15 billion breakfasts and lunches served in school cafeterias between March 9 and May 1 alone says a new study led by Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health’s Eliza W. Kinsey, co-authored by the No Kid Hungry Campaign’s Margaret Read, Courtney Smith and Pamela Niesen. 

Thanks to flexibilities provided by the USDA waivers, as schools closed, states and school districts developed innovative solutions to meet the nutritional needs of children, offering grab-and-go meals and expanded meal distribution, including home delivery. Yet, this new research shows that despite these extraordinary efforts by school nutrition programs, there is still a large gap between the number of meals served in a typical school week and the number of meals currently being distributed as replacements.

“Missed school meals can significantly impact children’s health, nutrition and food insecurity,” says Margaret Read, Senior Manager at No Kid Hungry’s Center for Best Practices. “Despite herculean efforts, it’s unlikely school districts will be able to replace all of the meals that were provided at schools. Going forward, it will be important to utilize programs like Pandemic EBT, which provides a benefit to replace those meals when school buildings are closed.”

Ultimately, the paper concludes, school nutrition programs should not be tasked with filling this gap on their own; P-EBT is an essential policy mechanism that can also be used. The pandemic offers us a unique opportunity to determine the best way to meet nutrition gaps for school-aged children during out-of-school time.

Other study co-authors include Amelie A. Hecht, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; Caroline Glagola Dunn, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health; Ronli Levi and Hilary K. Seligman, University of California, San Francisco; and Erin R. Hager, University of Maryland School of Medicine. 

All of the authors of this publication are members of the ad hoc COVID-19 School Nutrition Implications Working Group, jointly supported by Healthy Eating Research (HER), a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), and the CDC’s Nutrition and Obesity Policy Research and Evaluation Network (NOPREN). This project was supported by funding from NOPREN.


About No Kid Hungry

No child should go hungry in America. But in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, 1 in 4 kids could face hunger this year. No Kid Hungry is working to end childhood hunger by helping launch and improve programs that give all kids the healthy food they need to thrive. This is a problem we know how to solve. No Kid Hungry is a campaign of Share Our Strength, an organization committed to ending hunger and poverty.