Supporting Food and Nutrition in Schools

The Brick-and-Mortar Rules: Why some kids get to eat, but some don’t.

The Question:

What if I told you that it’s against the law to deliver meals to kids at home or after school? Or, what if parents were not allowed to pick up lunches or snacks to bring home for their children to eat?

The Answer:

It’s hard to imagine a scenario where these statements make sense – but they are real, and they represent an outdated regulatory and policy regime that makes it difficult to get food into kids’ bellies. These are the “brick-and mortar” regulations (also called “congregate feeding” regulations) that require federally funded meals to be served at schools and to be consumed by participants on site. Meals cannot be picked up, delivered, or consumed offsite. These rules apply to programs like the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs; Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) for meals served in daycares or after school; and food provided by Summer Meal Service Program (SFSP).[i]

So, What’s the Problem?

The CDC notes that children get up to half of their daily calories at school, and for many of them, schools are the only consistent source of nutritious food. Students rely on these meals year-round, not just during the school year. The brick-and-mortar congregate feeding requirements automatically exclude virtual learners, homeschooled students, children home sick, and children on a four-day school week from receiving their fair share of food from federal meal programs. Now, this inequity will become even more striking in Colorado, where voters approved the Healthy School Meals for All Program (HSMA) to provide free meals to all students starting in fall 2023. HSMA is a huge win for families, since all students can receive a free meal without meeting Free and Reduced Lunch eligibility requirements. However, the federal brick-and-mortar rules hamstring the potential of the state’s “meals for all” program because homeschoolers and virtual learners cannot participate since they are not physically present in a school building.

Equity and Offsite Learning

Offsite and virtual learning are not going away. In fact, officials expect steady growth in these education approaches over time. For example, in fall 2021, Colorado enrolled 30,803 students in online schools, 50% more than the 20,603 enrolled in fall 2018. Today, online students represent about 3.5% of public school enrollment. The USDA’s antiquated brick-and-mortar rules are not keeping pace with the needs of modern families where homeschooling, four-day school weeks, and virtual or hybrid learning environments are increasingly within the norm. Ultimately, these rules force some families to choose between offsite learning or sending their kids to school so they can receive free breakfast and lunch.

Toward an Imperfect Policy Solution: Waiving Brick-and-Mortar Requirements or Providing EBT Benefits

When schools shut down during COVID-19, the USDA waived brick-and-mortar policies to allow meal delivery or meal pick-up. The USDA also offered the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) program, which provided a debit card with the value of the meals students missed at school and that could be used to buy groceries for kids. These flexibilities met students’ and families’ realities and enabled virtual and offsite learners to participate in school meal programs. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack noted, “The expansion of P-EBT benefits over the summer is a first-of-its-kind, game-changing intervention to reduce child hunger in the United States. . . By providing low-income families with a simple benefit over the summer months, USDA is using an evidence-based solution to drive down hunger and ensure no child has to miss a meal.” The Brookings Institute confirms P-EBT also has a measurable impact on food insecurity, decreasing food hardship faced by low-income children by 30% in the week following benefit issuance.”

These solutions are not perfect and some worry that by loosening the rules and providing meal delivery, meal pick-up, or EBT debit cards for groceries, the system could be gamed and food won’t go to the intended recipients. To alleviate these concerns during COVID-19, the USDA created a tracking system to provide assurance that meals were going to eligible kids. States were required to meet strict new USDA reporting requirements to track individual kids receiving P-EBT. Many noted that these elaborate tracking programs created an administrative burden on schools since this isn’t data that states and school districts normally track. “It’s very, very onerous to ask schools to meet strict new rules and provide more detailed data, especially when staffing has been stretched thin by the surge in coronavirus cases; it is unrealistic in many places, if not impossible,” noted Lisa Davis, senior vice president of Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign, in a 2022 NPR interview.

Call to Action

It’s time we modernize school feeding programs to meet and feed children where they are – whether that is in schools, in virtual or hybrid learning settings, or homeschooled. Schools and communities will likely continue to experience high levels of need for food assistance and ongoing challenges as school operating plans and status continue to change. Under the USDA’s current approach, thousands of children go unfed. By waiving federal brick-and-mortar requirements, offering non-congregate demonstration projects, or offering EBT debit cards for nontraditional learning environments, more children could access healthy meals, and we, as a nation, could take another big step toward healthier and more equitable learning environments for our children. For more information on the work being done in Colorado to tackle these policy issues, visit the Colorado Food Cluster’s website.

[i]Under the National School Lunch Act, 42 USC 1753(b)(1)(A), the Child Nutrition Act, 42 USC 1773(b)(1)(A), and program regulations at 7 CFR 226.19(b)(6)(iii), meals must be served in a congregate setting and must be consumed by participants on site

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Written By: Taber Ward

Taber Ward is a strategist and advocate for social justice. She is a believer — especially in human potential and...

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