New data from the USDA reveals that despite waivers that allowed schools to offer free meals to all students, school meal programs served 30% fewer meals to students and incurred significant losses in federal revenue in the first nine months of the COVID-19 pandemic. An analysis of newly released data shows that between March and November 2020, schools nationwide served 1.7 billion fewer meals compared to the same timeframe in 2019, equating to a $2.1 billion loss in federal revenue for school meal programs.
According to the data, average daily participation in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) plunged from around 32.5 million in March 2020 to just a little over six million in April and was down to under two million by July before rebounding to 8.6 million in September and the start of the 2020-2021 school year, a number that is still about a quarter of what it was just before the pandemic hit. Similar shortfalls hit National School Breakfast program (NSBP) counts over the same period.
Meanwhile, there was an escalation in the number of meals served under the Summer Food Service Program, for which waivers were granted back in early March 2020. In the September/October 2019 period, it served only about 180,000 meals as opposed to almost 575 million in September/October 2020, partly making up for shortfalls in NSLP and NSBP, which went from around 1.57 billion combined meals served in those two months of 2019 to 570 million in September/October 2020.
The impact of the reduction in reimbursed meal counts was compounded by losses of la carte sales and catering programs that were in effect halted by school closures resulting from the pandemic, which at the same time increased food and labor costs due to supply chain disruptions, high demand for meal packaging and new Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and cleaning requirements, according to the School Nutrition Association (SNA), which continues to urge Congress to provide additional relief funds for school meal programs.
“The pandemic and school closures have sent school meal programs into a financial tailspin despite extraordinary efforts of school nutrition professionals to continue nourishing students who aren't able to visit cafeterias each day,” said SNA President Reggie Ross. “Between the drop in revenue from decreased participation and higher pandemic meal service costs, school meal programs face an uncertain future. Congress must provide additional emergency relief funds to ensure these critical programs remain financially sustainable to serve students in the future.”
Congress did provide emergency funding for school meal programs in the December 2020 stimulus package, but these funds only covered some early losses incurred from mid-March through June 2020, SNA says. Its 2021 Position Paper urges Congress to provide additional funds to offset persistent, unsustainable losses and to provide equal access to school meals for all students.
“We must help schools offset these meal program losses, which will impact education budgets at the local level, cutting into necessary funds for teachers, textbooks and technology,” warned Ross. "On top of this, we anticipate future data will reveal declines in December and January given the dramatic surge in COVID-19 disrupting in-person learning, coupled with winter weather in much of the country hindering grab-and-go service."