School meal programs seek relief, plan for uncertain summer

UPDATE: May 12, 2020: The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act, introduced Tuesday in the U.S. House of Representatives, includes $3 billion to support school nutrition programs. It also include a 15% increase in the maximum Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for families.

“With unemployment soaring and food insecurity on the rise, so many more students depend on school meals to nourish their bodies and minds,” said Gay Anderson, president of the School Nutrition Association, in a statement. Congress must pass The Heroes Act to ensure school nutrition professionals have the resources to safely meet students’ critical nutrition needs this fall.”

But the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council said its members don’t want a federal bailout. “Accepting bailout funds will lead to higher levels of state spending and taxes — and feed the already bloated federal debt,” said Jonathan Williams, ALEC chief economist and executive vice president of policy. “Instead, states should put in the difficult but necessary work to balance their budgets, just like hardworking taxpayers and small businesses.”

School districts are distributing millions of meals for students per week — primarily through grab-and-go sites and school bus deliveries — but nutrition experts are shifting their focus toward how to keep feeding students over the summer.

Waivers from the federal government allowing schools to serve all students in “non-congregate settings” and granting some flexibility over what’s included in meals will expire June 30. Advocacy organizations, such as the School Nutrition Association and the Food Research and Action Center are asking Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to extend those provisions through the summer to prevent disruption in students receiving meals. 

Even if officials “ease up” on social distancing rules, it’s unlikely schools and other meal providers will be “encouraging 100 kids to congregate at a summer food site in a park,” said Crystal FitzSimons, the director of school and out-of-school time programs at FRAC. She added many summer camps, which typically participate in the summer meal program, are closed anyway. And school nutrition programs and nonprofit meal providers need to know if the waivers will be extended because “they can’t turn their programs on a dime.”

Meanwhile, school nutrition programs are serving well below the numbers of students they would normally be feeding if schools were open, which is compromising the financial stability of the programs, said Diane Pratt-Heavner, the director of media relations for SNA.

Of the roughly 30 million meals schools provide per day, about 8 million are for students who pay full price, and that’s the major source of revenue programs are not getting during school closures. In addition, if the students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches through the National School Lunch Program aren’t picking up meals, schools would also miss out on reimbursements they would receive from USDA for those meals. 

Because most meal sites are open to any family from the school, providers don’t always know whether those picking up the meals qualify for subsidized meals, and in a site that participates in the Community Eligibility Program, all students receive free meals. It’s a lot easier for families to take advantage of those programs when their children are in the cafeteria than when they have to travel to pick up the meals and might be concerned about safety, Pratt-Heavner said.

“This unanticipated loss of revenue has forced programs to tap into fund balances and draw upon lines of credit to sustain their operations,” according to an April 27 letter to Congressional leaders signed by almost 40 organizations and asking for $2.6 billion in the next federal relief package to offset losses. “Looking to recovery, it is imperative to support these programs while protecting jobs and limited education resources.”

Maryland’s Anne Arundel County Public Schools, for example, has served almost 1 million meals since schools closed in mid-March, including dinner meals. But while the district normally serves more than 54,000 meals on a typical school day, it is currently averaging about 18,000, said Jodi Risse, the district’s supervisor of food and nutrition services. 

“We are projecting a loss this fiscal year,” Risse said. She added that while her department has a balance that can absorb the loss, she is also looking for additional funds through the USDA, the Maryland State Department of Education or the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.

Rippling Woods Elementary School’s mascot hands over meals at a grab-and-go meal site in Anne Arundel County.

Anne Arundel County Public Schools


Families reporting ‘financial insecurity’

Congress’ second relief package, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, also included the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program to provide access to food for students who normally qualify for school subsidized meals. States have to submit applications for the program, and at this point, 19 states have been approved.

“The pandemic has really shined a light on all the weaknesses we have,” FitzSimons said. “We need to make the school nutrition programs run and reach as many kids as possible.”

Advocacy organizations and celebrities, such as Angelina Jolie, are also urging Congress to expand the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — or food stamps — in the next relief package. Participating in a call with Jolie, Jennifer LeBarre, executive director of Student Nutrition Services for San Francisco Unified School District, said she saw a “spike” in the demand for meals at the end of March because SNAP benefits ran out, and leaders of a Boston food bank program said they’ve seen a 300% increase in SNAP applications in Massachusetts in recent weeks.

Additional indicators also show rising levels of food insecurity among families with school-age and young children.

  • Recent survey data from The Education Trust and The Education Trust-West, in partnership with other nonprofits, shows more than a third of parents with children under 6, in both New York and California, report skipping or cutting back on meals because of “intense financial insecurity.”

  • The Hamilton Project’s data shows 17.4% of mothers with children 12 and under say since the beginning of the pandemic, “the children in my household were not eating enough because we just couldn’t afford enough food.” And almost 41% agreed with the statement: “The food that we bought just didn’t last, and we didn’t have enough money to get more.”

  • Survey data collected by the Urban Institute also shows more than 30% of adults reported their families had reduced what they were spending on food. Among those families that have experienced job loss or have seen reduced work hours or income, more than 46% reported cutting back on spending for groceries. Low-income, black and Hispanic families were also more likely to report spending less on food than before the pandemic.

One important deadline extended

FitzSimons added with rising unemployment rates, it’s likely more students are now eligible for the National School Lunch Program, and that more schools will find it financially viable to participate in the Community Eligibility Program. Schools in the program offer meals free to all students, but the program becomes more affordable when schools have a higher percentage of students who qualify for reimbursable meals. 

As part of the Families First package, the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service is also giving districts more time— an extra two months — to apply for Community Eligibility for the 2020-21 school year. And instead of relying on student poverty data from April 1, the usual cutoff, local education agencies can use data through June 30.

School meal programs are also imagining how their programs might operate this fall. If schools have both in-person and remote classes, they are “really going to have to renovate their program a second time” and offer meal services in schools as well as through pick-up sites, Pratt-Heavner said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is also recommending students eat meals in their classrooms to support social distancing guidelines when schools re-open. Many schools already provide breakfast in the classroom, and extending this to lunch would also likely boost participation in school meal programs, FitzSimons said. 

In the Anne Arundel district, Risse said her department already serves some grab-n-go meals off kiosks in schools and uses laptops to charge meal accounts.

“Once we have more information in regards to the opening of schools, we will evaluate our processes and menus to make necessary adjustments,” Risse said. “We continue to communicate with all food and supply vendors regarding meal participation and possible changes in the next months.”

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