Hunger and food insecurity affect children’s academic performance, mental health, and school attendance. Unfortunately, Black children experience hunger at the highest rate among all racial groups. Based on 2020 Census data, Black people faced the highest rate of poverty — nearly double the national rate. The USDA found that Black children are nearly three times more likely to experience hunger than white children and 22 percent of Black children live in food insecure households. These disparities are the result of longstanding systemic racism that has created a Black-white wealth gap. The COVID-19 pandemic and rising food costs due to inflation have only exacerbated these inequities.
For many public and tribal school students, school meals are their only consistent source of nutrition each school day. Under current law, students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals based on income. But not everyone who needs free school meals gets them. Students who qualify for free or reduced-price school meals can fall through the cracks, whether because they are intimidated by the application or feel ashamed about getting free meals. Other students may be above the income threshold but still struggle with food insecurity. For instance, students of color account for nearly 60 percent of children just above the income limit to qualify for free school meals yet struggle with food insecurity.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress authorized a number of waivers that allowed all children to get free school meals without having to apply. These waivers expired in June of this year.
Expanding access to free school meals would help eliminate food insecurity and poverty and improve overall student health, particularly for Black students. It would also improve educational outcomes, including by increasing academic achievement and reducing student suspensions.
The shuttering of schools across the United States in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic made clear how indispensable public schools are to American life. LDF released a report outlining what school districts must do to ensure students and families have the resources they need.
This report provides a look at the Black-White racial wealth gap in the United States today, explains the historical foundations and contemporary drivers of the gap, and offers a lens for developing and assessing policies to address these structural disparities.