School meal providers warn of tough times as they exhaust funds

School closures mean no daily revenue from students able to pay full price for meals

Closeup of vegetables being served in school lunch line. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Closeup of vegetables being served in school lunch line. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Posted May 18, 2020 at 8:20pm

School meal providers say they are serving millions of meals to low-income children after COVID-19 closed schools early, but warn they potentially face a financial bind with lower revenue and additional costs like personal protective equipment and transportation to deliver food.

The School Nutrition Association released a survey of members Monday that found 90 percent of those who responded think their operations will face financial hardship because the closures mean they no longer collect daily revenue from students able to pay full price for their meals, sell items a la carte to students or earn fees from catering services.

Most cafeteria operations rely on those income sources because they operate without funding from their states or school districts.

The survey had a response rate of 32 percent from school food directors or assistance directors who represent 1,894 school districts, the School Nutrition Association said. Together, the districts served 134 million meals in April.

The survey found respondents in 861 districts willing to estimate potential losses, putting them at $626.4 million. The School Nutrition Association said financial losses would make it difficult for school operations to prepare for the fall when schools could fully reopen or continue to require emergency food services for low-income students.

Diane Pratt-Heavner, association spokeswoman, said the survey bolsters the organization’s argument for economic relief funding from Congress. House Democrats included $3 billion for child nutrition programs in a relief bill (HR 6800) the House passed Friday. The legislation includes directions for allocating funds to school food authorities.

“We’re continuing to talk to members of Congress and to USDA,” Pratt-Heavner said.

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Before schools closed to limit transmission of the COVID-19 virus, they served an average 30 million meals a day across the nation with nearly eight million of them paid in full by students and the remaining 22 million meals covered by Agriculture Department reimbursements, according to the School Nutrition Association.

The meal programs are reimbursed by the USDA for food they provide to children who qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Districts that have waivers from the USDA to continue emergency meal service after school closures are using various methods to get meals out. Some operate drive-through pick-up locations, deliver meals to children’s homes or use school bus routes for distribution.

Some school districts that responded said they provide several days’ worth of meals to children to reduce the number of serving days.

To meet public health guidelines, meal providers are donning masks and using hand sanitizer. Most meal directors who responded said their districts provided personal protective equipment, but nearly 11 percent said they often lack masks.