School meal program members of the School Nutrition Association (SNA) responded to a survey sent by the SNA to gather feedback and assess efforts to serve students in need during coronavirus-related school closures. As thousands of school nutrition professionals know, efforts are underway but there are numerous concerns and regulatory challenges ahead.
Respondents’ descriptions of feeding plans varied widely, but most districts are offering grab-and-go meals at a limited number of schools, often for drive-thru pickup in the school bus loop or parking lots to maximize social distancing.
The survey, conducted from March 12-16, yielded responses from 1,769 unique school districts nationwide, representing 39,978 schools. Among responding districts, 1,211 reported they were either engaged in emergency meal/food assistance or were developing plans to feed students during school closures.
Leading with humanity—as school nutrition professionals often do—the top concern cited was “the potential that students would go hungry,” according to the survey. Respondents also worried about the long-term impact of financial losses for school meal programs, which depend almost entirely on cafeteria sales and federal reimbursements for meals served.
K-12 foodservice directors are also worried about cafeteria staff: the loss of income for staff furloughed by closures, staff safety when preparing and distributing meals, and staff availability and willingness to work during closures. Logistics—transportation challenges for both students and staff—is also shown to be a big area of concern.
Regulatory hurdles unique to school food are a whole other thing to worry about, as these hurdles threaten to hinder the efficient execution of emergency feeding plans, the survey revealed.
Some districts are turning to summer feeding plans. The USDA allows states to request waivers to permit schools eligible to operate summer meal programs to serve grab-and-go meals during COVID-19 closures. However, many respondents reported feeling uncertain about whether state waivers had been approved, and others raised concerns about the district’s eligibility to participate in the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) or Seamless Summer Option (SSO). More than 38% of those surveyed were not enrolled in these programs.
On top of the usual red tape, time is of the essence like never before, directors are finding.
“We couldn’t get clear guidance from anyone at the state level,” one director wrote in the survey’s open-ended question section. “Since we don’t qualify for SFSP, we opted to provide the bags and will bill our district. This is not ideal, but we had to react quickly and didn’t have time to wait for USDA to come up with variances.”
“I have been asked to have a plan to feed students. At this time, I don’t qualify for any USDA program to feed students under these circumstances,” another director wrote. “I am hopeful that if I design grab-and-go meals under the [National School Lunch Program], that USDA will allow reimbursement for [free- and reduced-price eligible] students.”
“Area eligible” schools, where 50% or more of students are eligible for free- and reduced-price school meals, are permitted to serve all children free meals during COVID-19 closures, which simplifies emergency meal service. Among responding districts, 46% (or 14,354 schools) are area eligible.
On the other hand, all other schools (not area eligible) must carefully track each child’s eligibility for free or reduced meals, something SNA says is “further complicating meal distribution efforts by requiring additional contact with families and hindering efforts to maintain social distancing.”
SNA urges the USDA and Congress to expand eligibility for summer meal programs and allow all schools the opportunity to serve children free meals without having to verify eligibility during the pandemic.
A school district’s connection to community health was recognized in the survey; a complicated equation for those grappling with the goal of feeding kids while keeping their staff safe.
“We are ALL the public,” one respondent wrote. “Granted, school kitchens are probably the cleanest and most sanitary places in the world; however, what the staff are exposed to during preparations and distribution are counterproductive, especially if doing multiple stops to drop meals on a route.”
Overall, the study found that school districts are continuing to work with their community public health officials in assessing emergency meal serving and distribution options that will keep everyone safe.
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