D.C. Scores High in School Meals, But More Participation Is Needed to Offset COVID Hunger

Media Contact:
Jordan Baker
JBaker@frac.org
202-640-1118

WASHINGTON, November 19, 2020 — Households with children have turned to federal nutrition programs to help combat the loss of free or reduced-price school meals due to mandated school closures. As schools in Washington, D.C., make plans for reopening in the future, reaching more children with school breakfast and lunch will be critical to addressing exacerbated childhood hunger caused by COVID-19.

The District of Columbia ranked high for participation in serving school breakfast and lunch during the 2018—2019 school year according to a new report released today by D.C. Hunger Solutions (DCHS) but work is needed to reach even more low-income children to offset hunger.

The District of Columbia’s School Meals report reveals 28,645 (or 41.3 percent) low-income students ate free or reduced-price school breakfast, and 41,478 (or 59.9 percent) ate free or reduced-price school lunch during the 2018—2019 school year. School meals improve students’ dietary intake, increase household food security, and give children the nutrition they need to spend their school day focused and ready to learn.

“Now more than ever, attention must be given and improvements must be made to D.C. school meal programs so that no child is without access to much-needed nutrition that could help them learn and thrive,” said Beverley Wheeler, director, DCHS. “We hope school districts, school administrators, principals, and teachers use this report and our recommendations to help connect more students to school breakfast and school lunch in the near future.”

The report compares low-income students’ participation in the School Breakfast Program (SBP) and the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) at 60 of D.C.’s 68 local education agencies, also known as LEAs. An LEA is a public board of education or a combination of school districts or counties that is recognized in a state as an administrative agency for its public elementary schools and secondary school. For this report, DCHS uses the benchmark of meeting 60 percent or more of low-income students with a school meal.

The report found eleven LEAs had strong participation in both breakfast and lunch, including Bridges PCS, DC Scholars PCS, Digital Pioneers Academy PCS, Eagle Academy PCS, Early Childhood Academy PCS, Ingenuity Prep PCS, Mary McLeod Bethune PCS, Perry Street Prep PCS, Rocketship Rise Academy PCS, Roots PCS, and The Children’s Guild Public Charter School.

Overall breakfast participation was worse than lunch participation in 2018-19, with 49 out of 60 LEAs failing to reach at least 60 percent of low-income students with school breakfast.

LEAs have previously struggled with breakfast participation but school districts can reach DCHS’ benchmark by increasing accountability for schools that are required to offer breakfast with the “breakfast after the bell” service model, which makes the meal more convenient, accessible, and free of stigma for all students.

There are several strategies for increasing participation in the nation’s capital. DCHS recommends:

  • the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) increases accountability for school required to use breakfast after the bell service models due to the Healthy Schools Act;
  • the Mayor, D.C. Council, and OSSE ensure adequate funding in the annual budget for the Healthy Schools and Healthy Students Amendments Act which provides schools annual funding for school meals;
  • OSSE review school meals implementation policies at all low performing LEAs; and
  • school districts engage key stakeholders – students, teachers, principals, food and nutrition services, and custodial staff – so that every member of the school community understands the importance of school meal programs.

The health and economic impacts of COVID-19 will require schools to improve participation in their school meal program so that every low-income child has access to nutritious meals. It will be even more vital to increase participation rates in an area where 1 in 4 households with children struggles against hunger.

Download the full report.

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D.C. Hunger Solutions, an initiative of the Food Research & Action Center, works to end hunger in the nation’s capital and improve the nutrition, health, economic security, and well-being of low-income District residents.