Public schools served tens of millions of emergency meals in April to low-income children after coronavirus closures ended cafeteria service, said a survey released on Monday. But with roughly half of the 1,894 districts taking part in the School Nutrition Association survey reporting a drop-off of at least 50 percent in meals served, losses are expected to balloon this year.
School food directors put the median loss at $200,000, meaning half of all schools will lose more money, and half less. Among large districts, the median loss could be $2.5 million.
SNA president Gay Anderson said schools would be hobbled in feeding students in the new school year if they lose large amounts of money during this school year, which ends in a few weeks.
“With a growing number of families dependent on school meals, Congress must act to ensure school meal programs are equipped to nourish students this fall,” said Anderson. She encouraged passage of legislation to ensure schools have adequate funds. The House passed a coronavirus relief bill last week that included $3 billion for child nutrition programs as well as increasing SNAP benefits by 15 percent through Sept. 30, 2021.
Some 95 percent of the districts taking part in the SNA survey said they provided emergency food assistance. In nearly all cases, they offered breakfast and lunches. Drive-through lanes are the most common pick-up method, although schools often have walk-up lines and employ methods such as delivering meals along bus routes or directly to student homes. Many school districts said they offered multiple days’ worth of meals at a time so, as a safety step, they could reduce the number of days of operation.
In all, 132 million meals were served during April, according to responses to the SNA survey. Eighty percent of districts said they served fewer meals since schools closed in response to stay-at-home orders. For funding, school food programs rely on cafeteria sales and government reimbursement for meals served. With schools closed, they are serving fewer meals and forgoing revenue from a la carte and catering but still have to pay staff salaries and cover the expense of Covid-19 supplies, such as packaging for grab-and-go meals and protective equipment for workers.
“School districts rely on economies of scale to operate financially viable school nutrition programs,” said Crystal Fitzsimons, director of school programs for the anti-hunger Food Research and Action Center. “It is much easier to provide school breakfast and lunch to children when they are actually in school. With the significant decrease in participation, there is a significant concern that school nutrition finances will need additional support.”
Congress boosted funding for public nutrition programs in coronavirus bills earlier this year and created the so-called P-EBT program to help low-income parents buy food for their children when free and reduce-price school meals are not available. Pandemic Electronic Benefit programs have been approved for 31 states. They expire with the end of the current school year.
Over the weekend, the USDA extended through Aug. 31 three waivers that facilitate meals for children during the coronavirus pandemic. In the SNA survey, 24 percent of districts said they would not run a summer meals program and 31 percent were unsure what they would do if the waivers ran out on June 30 as originally planned.
Results of the SNA survey are available here.