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Student Voice Survey Series: Food Insecurity During the Coronavirus Pandemic

In an earlier blog post from the series, we touched on how many students face multiple obstacles to learning during the coronavirus pandemic. Today, we highlight another obstacle: food insecurity.

Before the pandemic, the USDA reported* that six million U.S. children lived in food-insecure households and approximately 30 million children relied on schools for breakfast and/or lunch. Likewise, research has identified food insecurity as a potential factor in student learning, which is why we’ve piloted a free breakfast program before national ACT test administrations.

As pandemic-related school closures reduced student access to breakfast and lunch programs, federal legislation eased student access to food in multiple ways. Our recent survey confirmed that these steps were needed.

We found that 4% of students reported needing help accessing meals the week of March 26 and 18% of students worried that their food would run out before their family had received enough money to buy more.

The federal legislation allows schools to continue to provide food to their students while school buildings are closed. However, meal distribution is largely a district decision, meaning implementation varies across the country.

At the time of our survey—shortly after the legislation was enacted and while districts may have been finalizing their plans—we found that one in five students were unsure of whether their school or another community organization was providing meals to students while school was closed. Of those students who were aware of this service, students of color, students in rural locations, and first-generation students were more likely to report receiving meals from their school or community organization than their white, urban, and non-first-generation counterparts.

For those students who were aware of a meal service, students of color, students in rural locations, and first-generation students were more likely to report receiving meals from their school or community organization.

With more Americans unemployed due to the coronavirus, including high school students, it’s no surprise that Americans worry about having enough money to pay for food.

We looked at students whose parents’ employment were impacted by the pandemic (e.g., parents who
either lost their job or had their hours reduced) and compared that to whether students were worried about paying for food. A total of 35% of students whose parents’ employment was impacted by the pandemic worry about having money to pay for food. Many students (42%) who would be the first in their family to attend college reported worrying about paying for food. Similarly, 35% of Hispanic students and 31% of African American students also had this worry.

Students whose parents’ employment were impacted by the pandemic worry about having money to pay for food.

How are districts responding?

Since districts create their own plan for distributing meals to students, it’s important to highlight some of the great work being done across the country. For example, school bus drivers deliver meals to students at bus stops in select school districts in New Hampshire. The districts created new bus stops for students who normally walk to school. Other school districts provide grab-and-go meals on weekends at mobile meal sites and recreation centers; all family members can participate. Columbia University, at the Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education and Policy, is documenting the ways districts serve their communities. The Center provides best practices for serving students during the coronavirus.

How are governments responding?

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act gives flexibility to states to apply Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) funds to address citizens’ food needs due to the coronavirus pandemic. The act provides two avenues of support:

  • One, states can now provide additional emergency SNAP benefits to households that already participate in the program. Households that do not already receive the maximum amount, can receive additional funds.
  • Two, states can provide a Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) card to both SNAP and non-SNAP households who have school-aged children who would normally receive free or reduced-price lunch. Money is loaded onto a household’s EBT card, and families receive money for the value of the free school breakfast and lunch that students would have otherwise received at school.

Both benefits require states to apply and receive approval from the USDA. To date, the USDA has approved 13 states to operate a P-EBT program.

What is ACT doing?

ACT’s Corporate Giving Program has prioritized applications for funding that provide the largest community support to those affected by the pandemic, including in the area of food insecurity. We also encourage individuals to consider donating to their local food bank or food rescue organization.

*USDA information on food insecurity:

ACT Student Survey Series

At least 55 million students are now learning at home after approximately 124,000 public and private schools have closed their doors due to the coronavirus.

ACT wanted to hear from students about their experiences during the pandemic. We invited 130,000 college-bound high school students who registered to take the national April or June 2020 ACT test to participate in an online survey. A total of 13,000 students participated between March 26 and April 1, resulting in a 10% response rate.

We sought to gather students’ responses related to…

  • the technological device and internet quality that they have access to at home for school-related activities.
  • how well they are learning at home and online compared to when they were in school.
  • whether their basic needs (e.g., housing, food) are being met during the pandemic.
  • their current living situation, including whether they are employed, need to care for others, or are home alone.
  • the types of health behaviors (e.g., eating healthy, exercising) they are engaged in during the pandemic.

Read More from the Series:

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ACT is a mission-driven, nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people achieve education and workplace success. Grounded in 60 years of research, ACT is a trusted leader in college and career readiness solutions. Each year, ACT serves millions of students, job seekers, schools, government agencies and employers in the US and around the world with learning resources, assessments, research and credentials designed to help them succeed from elementary school through career.