School nutrition programs face Covid-19-related fiscal challenges

The financial impact of coronavirus-related school closures includes school meal programs. Here's how Michigan is addressing related issues for the new school year.
By: | July 1, 2020
Photo by Mario Gogh on UnsplashPhoto by Mario Gogh on Unsplash

Michigan school nutrition programs are among programs nationwide uncertain about their fiscal standing for the 2020-21 school year.

More than 90 percent of school meal program directors, responding to a School Nutrition Association (SNA) member survey conducted between April 30 and May 8, reported that they either anticipated a financial loss (68 percent) for their programs for SY 2019-20 or were uncertain about financial losses (23 percent). About 95 percent of respondents were engaged in emergency meal assistance related to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“We continue to hear concerns from our members about the financial impact of Covid-19 closures on school meal programs and their ability to prepare for the coming school year,” says SNA Media Relations Director Diane Pratt-Heavner. Furthermore, uncertainty around how school districts will approach learning and potential closures due to a second wave of coronavirus will necessitate school meal programs’ maximum regulatory flexibility to ensure they can respond to rapidly shifting meal service requirements.

School meal programs struggle to cover fixed costs and staff salaries, as well as Covid-19 related expenses, such as grab-and-go carts, packaging supplies, meal transportation costs and personal protective equipment. Strategies to ensure the safety of students and staff—such as providing or requiring masks for staff and conducting more frequent cleaning—contribute to financial losses and may affect schools’ ability to serve students this coming school year.

Michigan State Child Nutrition Director Diane Golzynski considers the situation “disconcerting,” noting that rograms presently lack assurances there will be flexibilities for meal pick-ups or other food service strategies to help mitigate Covid-19 this year “The industry needs eight weeks to have products in place,” she continued.

Waiver

The U.S. Department of Agriculture extended its nationwide area eligibility waiver, allowing for meals to be provided to all children at open sites throughout the summer. And SNA advocated for the waiver extension in a June 4 letter but called upon Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to extend all COVID-19-related school meal waivers through SY 2020-21.

In Michigan, an advisory council will make recommendations to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on planning and guiding the 2020-21 school year reopening.

Golzynski anticipates recommendations will address how to feed students in their classrooms and how to send meals home in SY 2020-21. The latter, she says, would require a National School Lunch Program waiver of non-congregate feeding and meal pick-up requirements like the nationwide waivers issued March 20 and March 25, respectively.

5 considerations for program planning

“We want to make sure these programs stay viable,” says Golzynski, who offered five considerations for program planning:

  1. Service delivery. Serving meals not in the cafeteria—distributed on campus or delivered off campus—can be expensive. Pograms’ sustainability efforts may be affected as managers consider pragmatic solutions for cost-effective meal service. Also, serving meals across grade levels and age groups could pose challenges. For example, a kindergartner trying to carry food back to their classroom could get messy.
  2. Meal quality. To provide meals remotely and regularly, food options may be limited to include more cold meals that can be more easily delivered to students at school or at home. “Individually wrapped items, if we can find them, will be more expensive,” says Golzynski, remarking on potential supply chain issues.
  3. Meal reimbursement. “You only get paid for the meals you serve,” says Golzynski, adding that the varied meal distribution strategies have only added to program costs. Grab-and-go and hands-free meal delivery, for example, may require additional resources, staff, and community partners. “Gleaners Community Food Bank picked up an incredible amount of meals to deliver,” she says. “They have been an incredible partner.”
  4. Equipment and supplies. Programs must purchase their own personal protective equipment and supplies to maintain operations that comply with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations. She said the need for such equipment and supplies add up daily, per mealtime.
  5. Personnel costs. Programs may expect that workers owed pay during the pandemic unanticipated school closures will be paid. Nutrition workers may be returning to provide food services during the summer. Programs already dealing with tight budgets may have experienced steep declines in revenues collected from their a la carte service.

Golzynski hosts a statewide, town hall meeting-style webinar every other week to share best practices among program directors and managers. She says the brain trust is an effective tool toward evidence-based solutions in the absence of standard guidance to combat the spread of Covid-19. “We all work together to try to solve the problem, and we share our potential solutions with each other,” she says. “Many, many folks are willing to write menus and share them. The good thing is that no one is in it alone.”

Johnny Jackson covers homeless and at-risk students and other Title I issues for Title1Admin/ESEA Now, DA sister publications.

Full coverage of how coronavirus has impacted schools and how districts are planning for the new school year can be found here