A new survey from the School Nutrition Association (SNA) found that 54% of responding school districts reported a financial loss in the 2019-2020 school year, and 62% anticipate a loss in 2020-2021—another 28% say they are unsure of what to expect. Furthermore, of the 844 districts that reported losses last school year, the median was a $150,000 deficit overall, rising to $2.3 million for districts with enrollments of 25,000 or more. Total combined losses are more than $483.5 million. Unsurprisingly, financial loss was by far the top concern reported on the survey, cited by 93% of respondents.
The reasons for the financial devastation are not hard to find. In just the first two months of the COVID-19 school closures last spring, schools served almost 400 million fewer meals compared to the prior year, according to a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, which of course led to a major drop in federal meal reimbursements. Contributing to the deficits were losses of a la carte sale and catering revenues even as school meal programs faced rising costs associated with meal packaging and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) purchases.
“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,” said SNA President Reggie Ross in a statement accompanying release of the survey results. “Congress must act to ensure these school meal programs remain on solid financial footing. 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.”
The survey also inquired about how district meal programs are approaching serving in-person and distance learning students.
Among its finding for serving distance learners were:
- 91% are offering grab-and-go meal pickup;
- 24% are providing take-home meals to hybrid students to eat on their distance learning days;
- 16% are delivering meals along bus routes; and
- 15% are delivering meals directly to student homes.
Among strategies for serving students in school sites”
- 81% have students collect their meals in the cafeteria;
- 58% deliver meals to the classroom; and
- 28% have students collect meals at kiosks
Also, 29% of responding districts say they are serving locally sourced foods and 22% say they provide bulk foods such as gallons of milk and loaves of bread.
Among other findings, the survey found that 33% of respondents are offering adult meals upon request (not for reimbursement) while 22% offer Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program snacks and 11% offer supper among other services.
“As students have shifted between remote learning and hybrid schedules, school nutrition professionals have quickly and creatively adapted their programs,” Ross observed. “Ensuring children can safely receive nutritious school meals is a huge relief for families struggling with economic uncertainty or the exhaustion of balancing work and distance learning schedules.”
The survey, Impact of COVID-19 on School Nutrition Programs-Back to School 2020, was conducted Sept. 9-24 and yielded responses from school nutrition directors in 1,614 districts nationwide.