As 2020 drew to a close, an estimated 27 percent or more of U.S. households with children were unsure of where their next meal would come from — and food insecurity was even more severe in rural areas, where food prices are higher and people often live at greater distances from grocery stores and food pantries. With the pandemic still raging and the economy in shambles, hunger seemed sure to remain a major issue for years to come.

Still, “times of disruption are moments to reflect, reconnect and rebuild,” as Pamela Koch, Executive Director of Teachers College’s Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy, put it this past July in her inaugural address as the incoming President of the Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior. Nutrition education, added Koch, Associate Professor in the College’s Program in Nutrition, “gives people the power to demand healthy, just and sustainable food by disrupting the status quo.” 

Pamela Koch

DISRUPTING THE STATUS QUO As the new President of the Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior, TC's Pamela Koch urged people to demand "healthy, just and sustainable food." (Photo: TC Archives)

The Tisch Food Center embraced that role during 2020, documenting and evaluating regional and local efforts to feed the most vulnerable populations during the COVID crisis and identifying strategies that could be more broadly applied.

In September, the Center released a study of food distribution last spring by the nation’s four largest urban school districts (New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston). Among them, the four districts enacted a set of measures that the researchers deem “best practices,” including: providing at least one meal per day for students; accommodating different dietary needs and preferences and providing information in multiple languages; displaying food safety information; and advertising that all children could eat for free regardless of where they were enrolled. All four districts also partnered with community groups to maximize food distribution.

These findings could help guide meal provision both as the pandemic continues and in future public health emergencies. For example, as 2021 began, Julia McCarthy, the Tisch Food Center’s Deputy Director, wrote an opinion piece urging the Biden-Harris administration to permanently extend healthy school meals to all students.

But because food-insecure youngsters are at increased risk for obesity and diabetes — two common risk factors associated with COVID-19 hospitalizations — the Tisch Food Center also made recommendations for ensuring that healthy food is available for all. In another study, McCarthy and co-authors highlighted a little-remarked-upon consequence of remote learning during the pandemic: Children were spending full days on digital platforms used by commercial food companies to hawk sweets and sodas. In a subsequent opinion piece, McCarthy underscored the importance, as a counterweight to such practices, of school food systems remaining open even when schools themselves were closed.