Coronavirus Chronicles — When the Cupboard Is Bare

Several disturbing things are going on right now, and people are experiencing different combinations of inconvenience and misery because of the unsettling, frightening instability. People are being asked and/or told to stay home. In many places, food supplies are limited. People can’t afford their car payments, or gas, and public transportation is less available than ever. Money is tight. Kids who used to eat breakfast and/or lunch or school, or through some type of summertime substitute program, are out of luck.

Feeding Americans

When these programs function as designed — and hopefully, they will do so again — they are sometimes perceived as only helping kids who are presently enrolled in school. But that is a narrow and short-sighted way of looking at it. These manifestations of the societal safety net help people of all ages. Every home has a certain food budget to work with, and when children get nutrition at school, that family amount can “trickle up” and go farther towards feeding the adults, the nursing mothers, the preschool-age children, and the grandparents, if they happen to be around.

In 2014 we got the CEP, or Community Eligibility Provision, according to which if at least 40% of a school district’s children financially qualify for free or reduced-price breakfast, lunch, and snack, then every student does. By the time 2020 rolled around, nearly 30 million children were receiving free or reduced-price school meals. For this, the government paid out taxpayers’ dollars north of $30 billion in total.

Conflict of opinion

Critics see this as a disgrace, claiming that parents got used to kids being fed at least some kind of minimum diet through their schools. But when, in “crisis situations like the one the country now confronts,” the kids are not fed, because the schools are closed, well, then, parents allegedly have forgotten that it is, au fond, their responsibility to feed their own kids. Which they attempt to do, by forming incredibly long queues to receive food bank contributions.

The five authors of “COVID‐19 Related School Closings and Risk of Weight Gain Among Children” say,

Our projections in Philadelphia demonstrate that just three days of school closures could result in more than 405,000 missed meals among school-aged children.

This is of course extremely bad, just on general principles alone. The obesity connection is a paradox: Kids who miss out on school meals tend to gain weight, because households that don’t have much money can more easily acquire non-perishables, which tend to be very processed and calorie-dense. The authors say,

[W]e anticipate that many children will experience higher calorie diets during the pandemic response.

[I]t will require innovative approaches to addressing food insecurity within the constraints of social distancing or full stay at home orders.

As of the first of this year, 40 million people, mostly kids, were benefitting from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, aka SNAP, or food stamps. The promise of food security helps kids to stay in school, and helps them benefit from the experience because their brains are able to function, and they are not distracted by raw hunger.

Since the coronavirus struck, some legislation has augmented this program favorably, for instance, by suspending work requirements and time limits, and by trying to make up for the nutrition that children no longer get at school. But soon the USDA wants to make it harder to qualify for the program, and many households will see a loss in SNAP benefits, and a tightening of eligibility standards for school meal programs.

Also, they propose a federal eligibility standard, which can’t help being unfair because local conditions vary so widely. Journalist Jennie Day-Burget writes,

The proposal would allow schools to serve less fruit, fewer whole grains, fewer varieties of vegetables, and more starchy vegetables… The students who would be most impacted by these changes are those from low-income families attending majority black and Hispanic schools and in rural communities — kids who are often already at highest risk for obesity and related health conditions.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Covid Closures Expose Insidious Effects of Michelle Obama’s School Lunch Program,”, 03/16/20
Source: “COVID‐19 Related School Closings and Risk of Weight Gain Among Children,”, 03/30/20
Source: “The Impact of Changing SNAP and School Meals During COVID-1,”, 04/02/20
Image by Ged Carroll/(CC BY 2.0)

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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