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Fairfax-County-school-meal-bus.jpg Lucy Caldwell / Fairfax County Public Schools
Fairfax County staff with a bus used to get meals out to the community during the COVID crisis.

School nutrition programs deal with deficits, shortfalls and an uncertain future

With meal counts—and therefore revenues—down substantially since the coronavirus crisis forced the closing of most schools, their nutrition departments are facing difficult financial and operational decisions complicated by uncertainty over reopening plans.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit the nation in March and forced the closing of schools in just about every district in the nation, school nutrition professionals quickly pivoted to alternative modes of serving their young customers. Many quickly created ad hoc production and distribution operations featuring grab and go breakfasts and lunches—and even dinners and weekend meals in some cases—taking advantage of loosened federal school meal regulations put in place by the emergency.

Many of these programs not only fed the students from their districts but extended their services to any child—and in some cases even adults—needing a meal. It was an impressive demonstration of not only community spirit and dedication to mission but also of adaptability, creativity and effective crisis management.

But it all came at a cost…

Counts down, costs up

Wake County Public School SystemWake-County-Schools-meal-distribution.jpg

Staff at Wake County Public Schools pass out pack packs to students at a mobile community distribution point.

The inescapable fact is that while these emergency measures were effective in making meals available to home-bound students, they fell far short of the numbers school meal programs routinely generate when schools are in session. And that means the revenues from these emergency operations are far below what meal programs expected—and budgeted—for the spring.

“We are currently serving an average of nearly 24,000 meals every day (12,000 lunches and 12,000 breakfasts) compared to 58,000 lunches and 21,000 breakfasts when school is in session,” reports Paula DeLucca, director of child nutrition for Wake County Public Schools in North Carolina. “To date, we’ve served more than 650,000 meals.” She says she expects her entire fund balance to be depleted by year end, even after accounting for $3.8 million in funding from the state that the district elected to use in support of child nutrition operations.

Meanwhile, Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia typically serves some 110,00 breakfasts and lunches a day, but is only serving about 25,000 now, says Maria Perrone, director of nutrition services for the district. Across the country, at San Diego USD the totals are about 27,200 now versus over 130,000 (including 15,000 suppers) normally, according to Tara McNamara, marketing coordinator for Food & Nutrition Services.

Fewer meals naturally mean less product needs to be purchased, so food procurement expenses are down, but labor costs have not fallen nearly as fast, since many programs, out of contractual necessity or just basic decency, have continued to pay workers, most of whom are not putting in the same hours as before. For instance, in San Diego, all employees are still getting paychecks though only about 28% are actually still working in the field, while in the Cobb County School District in Georgia, “about 8% of my kitchen team is working right now, [along with] 100% of my office, warehouse and maintenance team,” says Emily Hanlin, executive director of food & nutrition services. “We are continuing to pay all of my staff,” she adds.

No clear path forward

San Diego USDSan-Diego-USD-Curbside-Meals.jpg

Cars driving up to get meals from San Diego USD nutrition services staff.

Meanwhile, ongoing uncertainly about if, when and how the schools in their district will reopen garbles coherent planning for the future.

“A lot of what we do in terms of school meals is dependent on how school is reopened,” concedes Betti Wiggins, who directs the Office of Nutrition Services for the Houston ISD. “Social distancing in schools, classrooms and school buses will reduce daily participation given we will have fewer students available to serve [and] reduced participation will cause the department to reduce cost.”

Indeed, most districts that are talking about reopening in the fall are anticipating some combination of staggered in-person classes and online work that would have far fewer students coming to school buildings than before—something that undoubtedly will impact meal counts and hampers planning on what to expect.

“While there are still many unknowns regarding the opening of schools in the fall, we are holding preliminary planning meetings to figure out details of what our service model will look like,” San Diego USD’s McNamara reports. “We do not foresee needing to make any cuts or adjustments due to financial shortfalls immediately. We are concerned, as we are losing revenue with the current situation; however, we are hopeful that we will be able to regain our participation and provide more meals to our students whenever classes resume.”

If and when students finally return to school, few expect the days of crowded lunchrooms to resume, which means formulating and implementing alternatives ranging from scattered points of service to all meals being served in the classroom, similar to how breakfast in the classroom programs operate. Some of this may require more labor than before as self-service will probably be almost totally eliminated, and perhaps infrastructure changes and investment in new equipment such as mobile carts as well. Plus, some menus may have to be reworked, especially if there are ongoing spot shortages in key product categories.

“If we return to school with social distancing requirements that prevent cafeterias from being used for dining, we may need to scale back our offerings if students are required to eat in their classrooms and meals need to be delivered to classrooms,” Wake County’s DeLucca suggests. “This presents a multi-fold dilemma [as] program accountability for meals served will likely shift to teachers and create a lot of manual work and added work time for staff. Also, we rely on Offer Versus Serve as a financial stabilizer for our program and it helps to minimize waste; when we lose chain of custody of foods sent to classrooms, foods offered but not taken or consumed by students increases waste and operating cost.”

She suggests an alternative may be “to set up a service system in hallways so students can go through a modified service line and make selections; this may allow us to expand offerings a bit, but options will still be limited due to a reduced footprint for service, and to support this system we will likely need to purchase hot/cold hold service equipment. Ideally, students will be able to come to the cafe to make meal selections [and] this should allow us to maintain standard service levels (an expanded array of meal choices) so long as the supply chain is strong.”

Staff may have to be retrained to operate under such new protocols, and in some cases, union negotiated work rules may have to be adjusted to permit new tasks to be performed. Also, with the threat of infection ever looming, staff redundancy may be a necessity, which means more workers on the payroll.

What about summer?

Cobb County Public SchoolsCobb-County-schools-meal-cart.jpg

Cobb County Schools meal packages ready for distribution.

But before there is fall there is summer, when many school nutrition programs institute summer feeding to serve children while they are out of school. In one sense, the coronavirus meal distribution operations were a version of that program, with severe social distancing precautions added. For some programs, actual summer feeding may also serve as intermediate step between this spring’s jerry-rigged approach and next fall’s anticipated modified resumption of ‘normalcy.’

“We are planning to continue with our current curbside drive-thru/walk-up style of meal distribution through the summer,” says San Diego USD’s McNamara. “Adjustments will be made depending on the continuation of various waivers we have received from the [California Dept. of Education]. We also may make adjustments in serving sites based on community need.”

“We have been a sponsor of the SFSP for many years and we plan to continue our community support this summer,” adds Wake County’s DeLucca. “At this time we are counting on the USDA to extend the congregate feeding waiver through summer, [which] may be a critical determinant of our ability to engage sites that will need to have service systems inclusive of social distancing for safety. The non-congregate meal service has been the gateway to creating access to meals and improving meal service participation while preserving the well-being of staff and volunteers. Without it, continuation of the program at current levels may not be feasible.”

Meanwhile in Cobb County, “we will continue our current operations through the end of June under the existing USDA waivers,” says Hanlin. After that, “we will definitely have to make some adjustments in our program, the full extent of [which] are still to be determined. We are currently working through multiple operational and financial adjustments based on a variety of potential school operation changes.”

“If our community partners open for students or would like to open as a Grab N Go, then we will provide [summer] meals,” says Lora Gilbert, senior director of food & nutrition services for the Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) in Florida. “Summer school will be ‘virtual’ so some of our schools will continue to provide meals,” she adds, noting that the two largest employers in the area have furloughed staff and Florida is having setbacks in applying for benefits, “so the need for food will continue over the summer.”

Still, OCPS is doing better than many, currently serving about 117,000 meals a day from 52 sites, plus seven other locations such as hotels and housing units from its food bus, compared to the over 260,000 meals it serves during a regular school day. Gilbert says what helped her program adjust quickly to this new meal service model, which has staff passing out meals packs for multiple days in drive-thru’s, was over a decade’s experience doing large food giveaways at holidays, so “moving 500 families through the ‘car line was tested for the last 11 years,” and was used as the model to train staff for this emergency feeding program.

But while school nutrition directors and departments are struggling to get a handle on how they will have to operate whenever their schools reopen, one thing remains clear, and that is a determination to provide their young customers with nutritious meals as a matter of both professional and regulatory necessity.

“I am committed to maintaining the quality of the food we serve our students,” Houston ISD’s Wiggins declares. “The quantity is mandated by regulations. There are fixed direct and indirect cost the program must fund. The only variable cost is labor.”

And as for what to expect?

“At this time I have not a clue,” she admits, “but I know it will not be business as usual.”

Contact Mike Buzalka at [email protected]

TAGS: Coronavirus
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