School closures during COVID-19 have decreased access to school meals, which is likely to increase the risk for food insecurity among children in Maryland, according to a new report issued by researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM). The number of meals served to school-age children during the first three months of the pandemic dropped by 58 percent, compared to the number of free or reduced-price meals served the previous spring. As a result, thousands of children across the state were placed at increased risk of food insecurity, with many likely experiencing the health ramifications associated with the abrupt disruption in their access to regular meals.
"Food insecurity in children is associated with poor child health, low developmental and academic performance, and may co-occur with excess weight gain.," said study leader Erin Hager, PhD, Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Epidemiology & Public Health at UMSOM. "We found that despite the best efforts of food service providers across the state to ensure access to free meals during the pandemic, they were not able to reach every family in need. We need to learn more about what we can do to overcome these access challenges."
Dr. Hager and her colleagues worked with the Maryland State Department of Education (who funded this study), local school systems in the state, and food service providers to evaluate meal distribution during the first three months of the pandemic. During this time, and even now, all meals distributed are free to children under 18 years. They found that certain policies worked well to ensure access to free meals, including temporary waivers issued by Federal and State governments to enable flexibility in policies normally in place to support subsidized meals.
For example, families did not have to prove that their incomes were below a certain level in order to gain access to the meals. They could also pick up multiple meals and multiple days of food for their children during a single excursion.
"Leaders of the school meal programs throughout the state chose to place meal distribution sites in areas where the need was greatest," said Dr. Hager, "which we found to be very helpful for access." The staff who worked at these meal distribution sites reported in surveys and interviews that they were deeply concerned about not reaching enough children in need and worried about children going hungry during the unprecedented school closures.
Financial resources remained a concern for the leaders of the meal program. After examining the financial data, the researchers concluded that, without significant local, state, and federal support, the financial health of these programs will take a major hit during the pandemic, when revenues are greatly reduced and expenses have grown.
"The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the crisis of food insecurity in our nation's children," said E. Albert Reece, MD, PhD, MBA, Executive Vice President for Medical Affairs, UM Baltimore; the John Z. and Akiko K. Bowers Distinguished Professor; and Dean, University of Maryland School of Medicine. "We need to take a hard look at the lessons learned from this study to determine long-term solutions for providing meals to students when school is regularly not in session, including summer months and holidays."
About the University of Maryland School of Medicine
Now in its third century, the University of Maryland School of Medicine was chartered in 1807 as the first public medical school in the United States. It continues today as one of the fastest growing, top-tier biomedical research enterprises in the world -- with 45 academic departments, centers, institutes, and programs; and a faculty of more than 3,000 physicians, scientists, and allied health professionals, including members of the National Academy of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences, and a distinguished two-time winner of the Albert E. Lasker Award in Medical Research. With an operating budget of more than $1.2 billion, the School of Medicine works closely in partnership with the University of Maryland Medical Center and Medical System to provide research-intensive, academic and clinically based care for nearly 2 million patients each year. The School of Medicine has more than $563 million in extramural funding, with most of its academic departments highly ranked among all medical schools in the nation in research funding. As one of the seven professional schools that make up the University of Maryland, Baltimore campus, the School of Medicine has a total population of nearly 9,000 faculty and staff, including 2,500 student trainees, residents, and fellows. The combined School of Medicine and Medical System ("University of Maryland Medicine") has an annual budget of nearly $6 billion and an economic impact more than $15 billion on the state and local community. The School of Medicine, which ranks as the 8th highest among public medical schools in research productivity, is an innovator in translational medicine, with 600 active patents and 24 start-up companies. The School of Medicine works locally, nationally, and globally, with research and treatment facilities in 36 countries around the world. Visit medschool.umaryland.edu