Scholar of school climate calls for a four-step plan, in op-ed for CNN.
Ron Avi Astor, professor of social welfare at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and the Marjorie Crump Chair in Social Welfare in the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, has called for a national plan of action to address the increase in child hunger in the wake of COVID-19 and diminished social services in the pandemic’s closure of schools.
In an recent op-ed for CNN, Astor, who this summer published a research brief of social workers’ recommendations for reopening schools this fall, writes that while this year’s back-to-school news has focused on technology and the struggles of balancing parent work with online schooling at home, many students’ basic needs, such as food, housing, and mental health, are not being adequately addressed. Astor’s findings in the op-ed will be presented at a congressional briefing on Sept. 23.
“Students are hungry today,” states Astor. “They cannot wait to eat only after a vaccine is found and distributed. If we want to show care and teach social-emotional support, particularly during this pandemic, then we must take collective national action to attend to the basic needs of hunger, compounded by racial and systemic economic social injustice.”
Professor Astor points out that before the pandemic, approximately five billion free or reduced price lunches were served to students across the country – not taking into account breakfast programs – as funded by the federal National School Lunch Program (NSLP). This spring, with the closure of schools nationwide, the number of food-insecure students has increased due to the growing number of unemployed workers. Astor posits that despite the fact that Congress has extended waivers for its Summer Food Service Program and Seamless Summer Option, this extension will only be in effect until Dec. 2020, or until the funding runs out.
In addition, Astor writes that the current methods of distribution are inadequate, and points out that a survey in May by the School Nutrition Association revealed that 50 percent or more students were not receiving their free meals and that 80 percent of school districts reported distributing a lower number of meals served than before the pandemic.
“The program has set up nearly 80,000 pick up sites over the last six months and has delivered about 40 million meals,” notes Astor. “But it is a grossly insufficient response to the needs of students and their families when you look at how many students aren’t being reached because of food delivery logistics (or an inability of students, parents or caregivers to go to distribution sites) and lack of a national distribution plan.”
Professor Astor proposes the need to create a national task force that will create ways to address the overwhelming needs of hungry students with extra funding for states and districts. He also calls for more funding to increase human capacity to provide food and to acquire publicly available and accurate assessments of the number of students receiving free meals since the closure of schools in early 2020, as all eligible or enrolled students are not being fed.
Astor delineates the need for funding public-private collaboration among food banks and food industry partners in order to provide three meals a day during the week and weekends for students and their families who are now supervising schoolchildren’s learning at home. He also writes that funding for school police forces can be a valuable asset, retraining and re-deploying officers in ways to “reconnect the school and community by feeding students and parents in a spirit of care,” rather than continuing to maintain the school-to-prison pipeline. He delineates the value of school police forces in being redirected toward food distribution efforts, as well as using their skills and retraining to work with social service organizations.
“We need to send a national message to our students and their families in struggling communities that we care about their hunger,” writes Professor Astor. “We desperately need the current administration and Congress to make sure that every student, particularly those who are distance learning, is being fed before being put in front of computer screens for hours at a time and asked to concentrate on learning.”
To read, “4 things our nation should do to feed hungry students so they can learn,” by Ron Avi Astor, visit the CNN website.
Courtesy of Ron Avi Astor