School meal programs have lost more than $483 million so far during the pandemic

School meal programs have taken a massive financial hit during the coronavirus crisis, according to a new survey from the School Nutrition Association.

The survey, which includes responses from school nutrition directors in 1,614 school districts across the country, points to the crippling costs of adapting to pandemic-related constraints, and significant losses due to a drop in participation in the school-lunch program.

More than half of surveyed districts reported a financial loss during the 2019-2020 school year — exceeding $483.5 million in total losses — and nearly two-thirds anticipate losses during the 2020-21 year. The financial blow is so great that advocates worry it could have long-term consequences for a program that plays a major role in feeding low-income children. Ninety-three percent of respondents cited financial loss as their top concern heading into the fall and winter.

“With food insecurity on the rise in communities across the nation, school meal programs offer a critical safety net to families struggling to put food on the table during the pandemic,” School Nutrition Association President Reggie Ross wrote in a press release. “Congress must act to ensure these school meal programs remain on solid financial footing.”

School closures in the spring led to a drop of almost 400 million meals served in March and April, compared to the previous year, according to a recent report from the Government Accountability Office. So already cash-strapped school meal programs faced a decline in federal reimbursements and cafeteria sales just as they were forced to take on new expenses linked to the pandemic, such as investing in protective gear for staff and students, sanitizing facilities, packaging for to-go meals, and purchasing tablets and other technology to manage student information.

Even if schools adapt to feeding fewer students, that will do little to offset the damage, since the cost per meal tends to go up as participation declines. Schools are reimbursed only for meals served, but whether they serve 100 meals or 50, their production costs — cooks’ salaries, equipment, etc. — remain fixed.

“We are very concerned about the future of school meals, and with all the communications from the USDA constantly changing over the course of this crisis, families are confused about whether they can get food, how they can get food, and where to get it,” said Katie Wilson of the Urban School Food Alliance, a nonprofit that represents the country’s largest school districts. Major districts “have lost significantly and continue to lose money as they try a variety of ideas to increase participation rates and bring families back to pick up their meals,” she said.

School meal programs tend to operate on tight budgets, but they are self-sufficient, staying afloat through cafeteria sales and federal reimbursements. They generally do not receive funding from school districts, which, even in normal times, are financially strained. “Particularly now, school districts cannot afford to cover meal program losses,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association. “These losses are unprecedented.”

Even those districts that went into the pandemic with strong, well-funded programs have taken a hit. “All of those fund balances are wiped out and then some,” Wilson said. One of the Alliance’s districts had saved up for years to build a full production kitchen, hoping to make more food from scratch. “That money has disappeared and that project is now on hold.”

The Heroes Act 2.0 would help alleviate the financial strain on school districts. The relief bill — which the House passed earlier this month but which is opposed by Republicans — includes $175 billion in coronavirus aid for K-12 schools, plus additional money to ensure internet access for students and an education fund for governors. It also appropriates $5 billion for pandemic-related safety measures, including protective gear for students and staff and assistance for ventilation systems — expenses that school lunch programs would no longer have to take on. And critically, the bill includes a provision that would reimburse 55 percent of the costs associated with school nutrition during the 2019-2020 academic year.

“We urge the Senate to pass the Heroes Act 2.0, providing desperately needed emergency relief funds for school meal programs to support America’s students,” said Ross, the School Nutrition Association president.

Without government action, districts are bracing for the worst. “Many don’t know what the future holds,” Wilson said. “How do you continue to cut into a program that is underfunded to start with?”