In a state where many children didn't get enough to eat before the pandemic, changes to kindergarten-through-12th-grade education threaten to widen the hunger divide.
Participation in school meal programs -- a linchpin in children's nutrition, especially for those who get free or reduced-price lunches -- has dropped in many districts around the state this fall, administrators say.
That's true even though most districts opted in on a federal program that allows all students to eat at no out-of-pocket costs through December.
More than half of Arkansas' schoolchildren are eligible for free or reduced-cost meals, so missed lunches and breakfasts indicate potential gaps in access to food as schools move to feed the kids in new ways. Missed meals are also troubling indicators, experts say, amid an upswing in nationwide food insecurity tied to this year's economic recession.
In Arkansas and elsewhere, the recession-tied burden weighs most heavily on Black, Hispanic and other children of color and their families, experts and advocates say.
"Anywhere there's a hungry child, I can guarantee you there's an entire hungry family" because parents will go without to make sure their kids are fed, said Arkansas Food Bank Chief Executive Officer Rhonda Sanders. "I think most people tend to forget that."
Since schools reopened in August, just a fraction of families who chose to have their children attend classes virtually are going to school to pick up breakfasts and lunches, officials say. Also, the number of students getting their meals in school cafeterias is down, attributed to safety fears unassuaged by extra cleaning and food-packaging measures.
In the Pocahontas School District, about 300 students chose all-virtual learning this fall, and child nutrition director Patty Moore said she is sending food home for approximately 30 of them each week. That can mean the district will receive less in reimbursements for meals served, she said, and saddle families with the extra food costs.
Even if families in the area are among a recent surge in state applicants for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) -- a successor to the food stamp program -- "I know it's costing more for them to [feed kids at home] than if their kids come to school and eat," Moore said.
The same situation is evident among remote learners in the Fort Smith and North Little Rock school districts. In the latter, a spokesman estimated that fewer than 25% of the district's virtual learners are going to schools to get their meals, and acknowledged that "transportation might be an issue."
The Arkansas Department of Education isn't tracking specific data on meals distributed to virtual learners, but the agency's Child Nutrition Unit has fielded calls from administrators concerned about meal participation this school year, spokeswoman Kim Mundell wrote in an email.
Accounts from districts overall point to children eating less frequently at school and having less access to food since the spring pandemic community lockdowns.
In May, one national survey found that four in 10 adults with children eligible for free and reduced-price lunches weren't getting replacement assistance, said food insecurity expert Elaine Waxman.
Across the country, news reports this summer documented long lines of cars and unprecedented demand at food banks as millions of people lost jobs and businesses closed because of the pandemic.
Waxman, who is a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank The Urban Institute, said this fall's reports of fewer children eating school-provided meals "doesn't surprise" her and "is probably not an indication that families don't need the help -- just that the logistics may work against participation."
Jeremy Everett, founder and executive director of the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty, said he has heard a few similar concerns about lower school meals participation, though it's not enough to know if the situation is nationwide.
"Many of the children are at home alone while their parents work and are unable to leave to go get their meals," he said in an email.
"It seems that the primary barrier is transportation. Children and parents are having a difficult time getting to the meals to pick them up when available, and schools do not have the capacity to make home deliveries."
The end of many coronavirus relief programs, such as the weekly $600 unemployment insurance supplement that expired in July, coupled with sporadic or skipped meals offered through schools undermine efforts to keep kids from going hungry.
Those efforts, which experts and officials view as successful, include many districts opting in on a U.S. Department of Agriculture waiver that allows districts to serve children free lunches even if the family's income is higher than the usually limit. The program will cover about $80 million in costs through December, state Education Secretary Johnny Key said at a Sept. 2 media briefing.
The initiative will reduce administrative burdens at schools, as well as worry for families who "might not qualify for free meals, but are still going through a tough time," Key said.
Melanie Hyso, 42, of Bentonville said efforts by state and federal governments this year helped her feed her 16-year-old, 12-year-old and 7-year-old. She praised the Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT) assistance program, which federal legislation created in March. It offered $319 per child for families eligible for free or reduced-price lunches because schools had closed.
Hyso said she's "so grateful' for the assistance card, which arrived later than she'd expected, during the costly run-up to the fall semester.
"You're trying to get supplies, and clothes, and shoes, and all this stuff, and I'm like, 'oh my god, where is it?'" she said.
While schools were shut down in the spring and summer, her district delivered basic meals -- corn dogs, sandwiches, vegetable sticks -- to the family's house. Her son's mentor and a therapist sometimes chipped in to help, at one point dropping off a birthday cake, she said.
All of it, she said, helped during a period of budgets strained by the kids spending more time at home, using more electricity to run their learning devices or eating lunch at home rather than at school.
"We've gotten really good at getting creative," she said.
'GRAB AND GO'
Declining participation in school meal programs is the most recent challenge in feeding kids during a year administrators say is out of the ordinary and stressful, and began with the abrupt closure of schools in the state in mid-March.
The closures presented a challenge for districts trying to feed thousands of children who were no longer going to school every day, especially kids who rely on free and reduced-price school lunches and breakfasts.
That's the majority of Arkansas schoolchildren, state Department of Education data show. Of 263 districts and charter schools in Arkansas, 223 had more than half of their students participate in those meals programs in the 2019-20 school year. The Marvell-Elaine School District and the Helena/West Helena School District have more than 95% of students enrolled in meals programs.
Ally Mrachek, child nutrition director for Fayetteville Public Schools, said she "kind of saw the writing on the wall" and began planning before schools closed last spring, but she called the experience "surreal" nonetheless.
"We saw other districts across the country closing, and we weren't getting a lot of communication in our state," she said. "We were driving forklifts and box trucks, and really trying to move food as quickly as possible and as safely as possible."
By March 20, the USDA relaxed several of its rules on school nutrition programs, including those pertaining to eating in group settings, what time children must eat and prohibitions on parents picking up food.
Food banks in the state also joined in, packing emergency boxes, connecting children with commodities programs and distributing "farm to family" food boxes.
Common strategies for districts included facilitating meal pickup hours for families and delivering meals to community drop points or neighborhoods, officials said. But there were challenges.
For example, El Dorado School District workers packed some lunches not knowing whether families had access to refrigeration or freezers at home, said Kim Newman, the district's child nutrition director.
By summer, more rule modifications, extensions of waivers and an existing districtwide free student meals program allowed the food providers to drive into neighborhoods and feed any child they saw, she said.
"We would just roll down the windows and say, 'Hey, are you hungry? Want some lunch?'" Newman said.
Summer food programs adapted menus to better ensure food safety, including "more sandwich-type meals," because food has to be served at a certain temperature, said Division of Child Care and Early Childhood Education Director Tonya Williams. She said programs for young kids shifted similarly, offering "grab and go" meals, though most of those programs now have reverted to their normal format.
"We're seeing a lot of people go back to work and have to be somewhere, so there's less of a need for 'grab and go' options," she said.
NO QUICK FIX
Food insecurity -- largely a measure of economic struggles -- is different from hunger. It means not consistently having enough money to buy food. For example, a woman who is food insecure might run out of money to buy food before payday and have to change her eating habits or cut out a meal.
It's long been a problem in Arkansas, a state with many low-income households. In 2018, the state had the nation's second-highest rate of food insecurity, behind only Mississippi, according to the Chicago-based nonprofit Feeding America. The group operates six food banks in Arkansas.
Food insecurity is expected to increase this year because of the pandemic, a group of researchers from that organization found. Researchers project food insecurity rates will increase by 50% or more in Benton, Washington, Saline, Carroll, Lonoke and Faulkner counties, and grow at least 24% in every county in the state.
Experts say it can take years for a family to recover from a period of food insecurity -- similar to what was seen during the recession in 2008, when it took between seven and 10 years for households to recover.
The pandemic has thrown more than 10 million kids, whose families struggle with access to food, in turmoil this year, said Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and out-of-school programs at the Washington, D.C.,-based Food Research and Action Center.
Normally in times of economic shocks like job loss, a parent can sign up through schools for food assistance programs for their kids, but the pandemic upended that.
"We had a hunger crisis before the pandemic, and the pandemic just made it worse," she said. "This was a situation where, overnight, communities had to try to figure out how to set up these feeding programs."
Early responses from communities and the government drew praise from advocates. Those responses included boosts in unemployment benefits as facilitated by the federal Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act; $1,200 payments to many Americans; the P-EBT aid program; and relying on distribution frameworks in existing summer food programs.
The federal government also briefly bumped up SNAP payments and waived several requirements around the program to make it easier for people to enroll, said Mary Franklin, Division of County Operations Director, which oversees the program in Arkansas.
But experts expressed concern about some limits in the response, including stalled negotiations in Congress regarding a new coronavirus relief package. Also, continued funding for the P-EBT program depends on the passage of a congressional spending bill that cleared the House on Tuesday.
In this year's unprecedented crisis, families also may encounter complex problems. For example, mixed-immigration-status families might not apply for pandemic aid that they're entitled to, fearing that it might affect their future citizenship applications, the Urban Institute's Waxman said.
"If you're already vulnerable, then the pandemic is just layered on that," she said.
State data bears out the rising need, with nearly 10,000 more households enrolled in SNAP in August than in April. Food banks across the state also are "seeing increases" in people seeking help, and a rise in food insecurity is expected, said Sanders, the food bank CEO.
"It's not going to just automatically drop back to where it was. There's too many jobs that have been lost; there's too many dollars that have been pulled out of the economy," she said.
School lunch and breakfast programs can significantly ease a family's food budget by providing as many as 10 meals a week (and sometimes more for very low-income families) -- which is why a decline in their use is viewed as worrisome.
The goal is for children to lead healthy, productive lives, and "that's impossible" if they're hungry, said Melvin Clayton, race equity director for advocacy at Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families. Experts link growing up in a food-insecure household with later-in-life health challenges, such as cognitive delays, asthma and other chronic illnesses.
Several Arkansas school districts -- including the large Benton, Bentonville, Fayetteville and Cabot districts -- are in counties where food insecurity is projected to increase the most while also seeing historically low rates of free and reduced-price lunch participation, suggesting a gap between what's happened in the past and what may be needed.
This year, the Education Department's child nutrition unit has recommended that schools develop community partnerships to help connect virtually-educated students with meals, and review and revise distribution plans if participation is low. Some districts have experimented with food pickup times, moving to once-weekly or evening pickups.
Meal distribution is "costly," the Department of Education spokeswoman said, and there are no USDA funds available to help districts shoulder it.
The Arkansas Food Bank is establishing a handful of on-campus food pantries at schools around the state in a pilot program, and Sanders said it has prepared to shift back to assembling emergency food boxes quickly in case schools are forced to close on a large scale again.
Beyond schools, advocates support the extension and expansion of relief programs, encouraging less restrictive rules and urging community leaders to speak out against the perceived stigma of people using those programs. One rule that should be waived, they say, is Arkansas' "asset limit" of $2,250 on hand to qualify for SNAP aid.
For students attending school in person and eating on campus, much is changed in cafeterias and classrooms because of the pandemic. There are physical distancing measures, staggered lunch hours, and changes in how students handle food and condiments. Disposable utensils, dishes and cups are being used, but that also increases schools' costs and trash.
Across districts, food being sent home -- sometimes because of students suddenly being sent into quarantine -- is usually straightforward and child-friendly. Meal options include chicken nuggets or spaghetti with meat sauce for lunch, and cereal or string cheese for breakfast.
School officials say there's some uncertainty about what the rest of the school year will look like.
Mrachek, the Fayetteville director, said that's prompted her to try to sign up as many families as possible for free and reduced-price meals for the spring semester, even families that may not have used such programs in the past. Toward that end, the district created videos in English and Spanish to explain the applications, which schools must submit by Oct. 1.
"Families won't rebound as fast as that cutoff date [in December for USDA waiver programs]. I don't know if families will be back on their feet by then," she said.