It’s a math lesson no one is likely to enjoy: Already working from a very tight budget, school meal programs are funded by cafeteria sales and reimbursements for meals served. Now subtract lots of meals and take away catering and a la carte revenue—due to COVID-19 school closures—and school meal programs will lose money.
That’s a simplified way to put it, but a new School Nutrition Association (SNA) survey underscores that reality with numbers, plus outlines how and where districts have been feeding kids as the pandemic has continued.
“As schools closed their doors, school nutrition professionals quickly transition from cafeteria service to curbside pickup and have continued serving on the frontlines to ensure hungry students have access to healthy meals during COVID-19 closures,” says SNA President Gay Anderson, SNS. “Despite these tireless efforts, school meal programs nationwide are experiencing crippling financial losses that could impede efforts to serve students next year.”
Anderson called on Congress to “act to ensure school meal programs are equipped to nourish students this fall.”
The survey, Impact of COVID-19 on School Nutrition Programs Part 2, yielded responses from school food pros feeding students in 1,894 school districts nationwide. It was conducted from April 30 to May 8, a time in which 95% of respondents were engaged in emergency meal assistance. During April, the districts combined served 134 million meals, serving them via drive throughs, bus routes, home delivery and more.
How it’s being done
Districts are distributing lunch (99%) and breakfast (94%) in a few different ways:
- 81% have drive-thru pick up sites; this is the primary means of serving meals for 64% of districts that utilize multiple meal distribution methods;
- 58% allow students and families to walk up to feeding sites;
- 42% deliver meals directly to student homes;
- 32% utilize bus routes; and
- 13.5% partner with local food banks/organizations to provide meals/food assistance.
As for frequency, 43% of districts report serving meals five days a week. But as schools seek to minimize physical contact, many are offering multiple days’ worth of meals at a time to reduce the number of serving days, the report finds.
Other widely adopted tactics include providing/requiring masks for staff; conducting more frequent cleaning; limiting the number of staff at meal prep and distribution sites; and spreading out meal prep areas and packaging stations.
Meal options vary from one district to the next, depending on lots of variables: staffing, product availability, food safety concerns and more challenges. Here’s the types of meals being served:
- 65% of districts reported offering entrees and sides to be heated at home;
- 64% distribute shelf-stable meals;
- 36% offer hot meals;
- 16% serve bulk foods like gallons of milk, loaves of bread and heads of lettuce; and
- 22% include locally sourced foods in their meals.
The financial impact
SNA’s survey highlights the fact that COVID-19 closures have had a dramatic impact on school meal program budgets. Financial losses to the program ranked as respondents’ top concern by far, with 90% “seriously or moderately” concerned. Of the 68% respondents anticipating losses for the school year, 861 school districts reported combined estimated financial losses of more than $626.4 million.
The median estimated loss per district was $200,000, but among the largest districts (enrollment of more than 25,000), the median estimated loss was $2.35 million.
The survey found 80% of districts serving fewer meals since school closures and of these, 59% have seen the number of meals drop by 50% or more. Which brings us back to the uncomfortable math equation.
The findings come following the House of Representatives’ passage of H.R. 6800, The Heroes Act, which includes $3 billion in emergency funding to help child nutrition programs cover costs associated with COVID-19 school closures. SNA called for swift final passage of that bill to address the funding crisis.
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