How K-12 districts are continuing to feed students through school closures
As schools nationwide face extended COVID-19 closures, school nutrition professionals are racing the clock to ensure needy students don’t go hungry. On a normal school day, nearly 22 million students nationwide depend on free or reduced-price school meals.
School meal program leaders face a variety of challenges as they implement plans to continue some form of meal service for these at-risk students during closures.
Emergency feeding-plan survey results
The School Nutrition Association surveyed school meal program directors about their emergency feeding plans. The survey, conducted March 12-16, yielded responses from 1,769 districts representing 39,978 schools. Most districts (1,211) were either engaged in or planning emergency meals or food assistance for students during closures.
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 lot to maximize social distancing. Some districts allow students to receive two meals per day, while others are providing multiple days’ worth of grab-and-go meals at one time, based on approval from state agencies. Many respondents cited additional plans to deliver meals to approved community sites or apartment complexes for distribution to high-need areas or utilize school bus routes to drop off meals throughout the community.
District administrators should be aware of the numerous regulatory impediments that have hindered the efficient execution of these emergency feeding plans. The U.S. Department of Agriculture allowed states to request waivers permitting schools eligible to operate summer meal programs to serve grab-and-go meals during COVID-19 closures, but the process has been cumbersome for school nutrition staff.
As child nutrition director for Brandon Valley School District in South Dakota, I was fortunate because my program already operated a summer food service program. However, before we could begin to serve our 4,400 students, we had to spend 24 hours completing forms, submitting online applications, requesting waivers, and seeking approval from our state agency. Schools where fewer than 50% of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals face even greater regulatory hurdles to serve their needy students.
We are grateful to Congress and USDA for their efforts to address these problems and hope the recently passed Families First Coronavirus Response Act will ease these burdens, but school meal programs will continue to confront a variety of complex challenges. For instance, as schools nationwide require teachers and staff to shelter at home, how can we ensure the food service team stays safe when preparing and serving meals? How can we maintain social distancing when families come to our feeding sites to receive meals? And as cities restrict public transportation, how do we ensure staff and students can access these feeding locations?
As we plan for extended closures, I worry about supply chain limitations, staff availability and how we can sustain service for our students and families—many of whom are newly facing food insecurity due to loss of work or income during the coronavirus closures.
Service sustainability concerns
This week, as South Dakota braced for more winter weather, our district mobilized to prepare three days’ worth of meals—breakfast and lunch—to distribute to families at our feeding sites. Addressing the needs of our community required the help of our sheriff’s department as we had a line of more than 50 cars waiting to pick up meals.
As we plan for extended closures, I worry about supply chain limitations, staff availability and how we can sustain service for our students and families—many of whom are newly facing food insecurity due to loss of work or income during the coronavirus closures. I’m also worried about the financial sustainability of school meal programs, which depend almost entirely on cafeteria sales and federal reimbursements for meals served.
As school closures persist, school nutrition staff and their programs will require the full support of district administrators, continued flexibility from regulatory requirements, and financial support to return to normal operations when school resumes.
Gay Anderson is president of the School Nutrition Association (SNA) and the child nutrition director for Brandon Valley School District in South Dakota. SNA is a national nonprofit representing more than 55,000 school nutrition professionals across the country.