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School lunch programs are losing millions feeding hungry kids. They could be broke by fall

Across the US, schools have faced rolling suspensions of meal programs, leaving already food-insecure families scrambling. Houston halted its meals program for more than a week after a worker was exposed to coronavirus. (April 9)

AP Domestic

The line of cars usually begins to form well before 11 a.m. outside Sharon Elementary school in Newburgh, Indiana, a town of less than 4,000 people along the Ohio River.

Stella Antey, an 8-year-old second grader, has sat in one of those cars with her older sister, younger brother and parents every weekday for the past two months. The wait for cafeteria workers to hand them free lunches and breakfasts for the next day has often been the highlight of their mornings since schools closed in March.

“My favorite is the breakfast,” she says. “I like the cereal and milk.”

Her mother, high school civics and dance teacher Amanda Antey, enjoys the break the trips give her children from the sometimes restrictive learn-from-home routine.

Still, the free meals are far from a luxury. Antey and her drama teacher husband, Eric, still receive pay from Warrick County but can no longer teach the after-school dance and theater classes that provided extra income for their young family of five. Antey says that loss, along with rising food prices during the pandemic, makes the free school meals for their three children crucial.

“Nothing goes to waste,” Amanda Antey says. “Whatever the kids don’t eat, my husband and I eat it.”

A worker with the Warrick County School Corp. in southern Indiana carries a tray of several pre-packaged breakfasts and lunches to a waiting car on Friday. May 8, 2020. Food service coordinators there estimate their meal program has lost $500,000 since March due to decreased revenue and increased expenses related to COVID-19. (Photo: Shenae Rowe/Warrick County School Corp.)

Necessity — both to prevent students from going hungry and to keep the people feeding them safe — is what drives Shenae Rowe through the long days and weekends since she joined hundreds of school nutrition directors across the country who, in a matter of days, transformed their school meal operations into emergency feeding programs.

The efforts come at a price. In the past 10 weeks alone, school districts and nonprofit organizations tasked with feeding children during the pandemic have lost at least $1 billion. The losses continue to climb with every lunch and breakfast workers serve and could force programs across the county to go into debt or dip into money dedicated to teachers and classrooms to stay afloat.

Challenges have come from all sides.

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Although nearly half of America’s schoolchildren were on free or reduced lunch before the pandemic, school shutdowns eliminated the revenue that came from other children whose families paid for the meals.

At the same time, costs have soared. Protective equipment for employees, extra cleaning measures, steps to ensure social distancing in food prep, hazard pay in some cases — they all cost more. It’s also more expensive to package meals that can be taken home or to buy individually wrapped foods that are more portable and easier to serve from a social distance than the soups and family-style meals cafeteria workers used to ladle out one at a time to long lines of children.

“Honestly, we haven’t been able to get past looking at today, day by day and week by week. We just keep going.”

Shenae Rowe, school nutrition director in Warrick County, Indiana

All told, spending for many feeding programs has outstripped federal reimbursements for the emergency meals. The House’s most recent relief bill allocated $3 billion for child nutrition programs from now through September 2021, but the bill will face heavy challenges in the Senate, and school food coordinators say they’re unclear on how much of that money will go to individual districts even if it passes. 

Still in emergency mode, school nutrition directors like Rowe, whose program has lost $500,000 since March, say they’re too overwhelmed to even begin thinking about what they’ll do when schools reopen in the fall. 

“Honestly, we haven’t been able to get past looking at today, day by day and week by week,” Rowe said. “We just keep going.”

A caravan of cars wait for deliveries of prepackaged breakfast and lunch meals outside Chandler Elementary in southern Indiana. Food service coordinators at the Warrick County School Corp. estimate their meal program has lost $500,000 since March due to decreased revenue and increased expenses related to COVID-19. (Photo: Shenae Rowe/Warrick County School Corp.)

Cash poor, cost rich

In Orlando, Florida, where nearly three-quarters of students at Orange County Public Schools qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, Laura Gilbert said her food service program nonetheless brought in $2.2 million from paid lunches in March of last year.

This year, Gilbert estimates her program lost $4 million in March. That number grew to between $6 million and $8 million in April and probably the same for May.

Emergency meals have now all but wiped out the cash reserves Gilbert took years to build. Without any outside help, she said, there will be no more money left by August.

Orange County schools averaged a million meals served to students every five days when they were open. The emergency program now serves between 115,000 and 117,000 meals a day, struggling to find prepackaged items like the cereal bars that were popular with students for breakfast before schools closed.

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For years Gilbert had worked to keep product and labor costs down wherever she could while offering students meals like freshly baked pizzas, hummus from scratch and trendy dishes like Korean stir-fry tacos.

But even those innovations, she said, cost less to produce than the emergency meals the district serves from 52 locations on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, sending each student home with six meals every Friday.

“That’s our biggest challenge, because it costs a lot more money to give out four or six meals at a time as opposed to having a kid come through the lunch line and get one breakfast or one lunch,” Gilbert said. 

Julie Beer, food service coordinator for the Ukiah Unified School District in Mendocino County, California, said her team is already “grasping at straws to keep the kids fed.”

About 80% of the approximate 6,000 students in the district are low-income, a percentage so high that it qualifies all students for free meals. 

The district is serving about 57,000 free meals a week, either at distribution points where families drive through to pick up items, or by school bus delivery at drop-off points.

Ukiah’s food services team packs up totes with an entire week’s worth of prepared meals for students — with breakfast and lunch that’s 14 servings per order — and distributes them on Mondays. 

Like Gilbert’s program in Orlando, it costs more per meal to give students several meals at a time than it would to serve meals individually through a lunch line. And the district is stretched because it can’t supplement the meals with anything it makes from scratch, such as soup and spaghetti, because it can’t guarantee those items would still be fresh and safe by the time children eat them. 

According to a recent survey of nearly 2,000 school districts across the country, nearly half of school districts offering emergency meals serve them only once a week.

Cafeteria workers with the Warrick County School Corp. in southern Indiana pose for a photo greeting sent to students. Food service coordinators there estimate their meal program has lost $500,000 since March due to decreased revenue and increased expenses related to COVID-19. (Photo: Shenae Rowe/Warrick County School Corp.)

Rowe in southern Indiana is an exception. Like 13% of the schools that participated in the School Nutrition Association’s April 30 survey, workers at the Warrick County district serve meals to students five days a week.

Even in daily meal service, foods need to be packaged. Take apple slices, for instance, a food that has been a staple in American school breakfast and lunches for decades.

Without the ability to place a few apple slices on a child’s plate inside a lunch room, Rowe was left with two options: pay more for individually wrapped packages of apple slices, or package them in-house.

Rowe decided on the latter, but that alone was an undertaking that involved opening a separate kitchen to allocate two food prep workers whose full-time job it is to slice apples, kiwis, celery sticks and other fruits and vegetables for the meals the Antey family and others depend on.

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While a cumbersome undertaking in Indiana, where Rowe’s team serves 1,000 meals daily, such an effort would require 100 times the effort in Orlando. So school districts that size opt for the prepackaged options when they can – even if it costs them more.

Aside from the rise in food costs generally, the pandemic has been especially hard on food distributors who work with schools, regardless of whether they had the foresight to plan ahead.

Sean Leer, CEO of Gold Star Foods, was in a California airport headed on a family vacation on Valentine’s Day when the sight of a few travelers in masks prompted him to launch safety measures for his company’s staff and begin working with food suppliers to individually wrap food items they previously sent in bulk.

Those moves require Gold Star, which works with 20% of the nation’s public schools, to spend extra money on cleaning supplies, protective equipment for their workers, along with seed money to their suppliers for extra packaging. That, along with a general decrease in product demand from schools, led Leer to furlough 20 percent of his staff.

“We don’t know when we’ll be able to bring them back,” Leer said. “We hope it’s soon.”

Leer has said that his company has tried to keep their prices as low as they can in the process. But in large school districts especially, the slightest per item increase can have a profound financial effect when serving hundreds of thousands of meals daily.

 Katie Wilson, executive director of the Urban School Food Alliance, says the 12 large school districts in her association, which includes Orlando, are losing $38.9 million a week by serving food to their students during the school closures.

Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association, said the 861 districts in the survey who agreed to list their lost revenues reported collective losses of $626.4 million.

The price of safety

As much as Rowe’s program has lost, money is a secondary concern. Although the Anteys and other families have shown overwhelming support for the five-day-a-week food distributions, Rowe knows that it also increases the chance of a coronavirus outbreak if one of her staffers is infected.

“Every time I get a text early in the morning, I’m afraid I’m going to look at my phone and get a message that someone (working in the cafeteria) has gotten sick,” she said.

Cards, candy, flowers and homemade cookies from Warrick County School Corp. students and parents are among several gifts and tokens of appreciation cafeteria workers in southern Indiana have received since March , when they began their emergency school meal program. Food service coordinators there estimate their meal program has lost $500,000 since March due to decreased revenue and increased expenses related to COVID-19. (Photo: Shenae Rowe/Warrick County School Corp.)

The fear is realistic. Soon after schools across the country started emergency feeding programs, several had to either shut down temporarily or move to other locations after food prep workers tested positive for coronavirus.

Most recently, officials in Puerto Rico ordered the shutdown of 30 school cafeterias and a few food warehouses after dozens of workers in the U.S. territory tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

A group of mothers and several nonprofits responded by suing the island’s Department of Education, accusing it of dodging its responsibility to feed the island’s nearly 300,000 public schoolchildren. 

Because of the risks, school food service leaders in many places offer hazard pay to front-line workers, and large cafeterias designed to cook a high volume of meals operate at only a fraction of their capacities so workers can operate at a safe distance.

Residents lined up to receive boxes of food at Living Water Baptist Church in Longs, S.C., on Monday. Local organizations stepped in help after Horry County Schools postponed its lunch program this week because some school workers tested positive for the coronavirus. (Photo: Jason Lee/The Sun News via AP)

Pratt-Heavner says many members of her association are already reporting shortages of personal protection equipment like masks and gloves, as well as a shortage of cleaning supplies. 

And school food coordinators like Gilbert say they are saddled with the additional food safety costs of transporting and storing items like milk, meat and juice at cold temperatures. 

Gilbert had to rent 15 refrigerated trucks to store large quantities of items that her staff is now handing out in bulk from a few centralized locations instead of the many schools they served from daily when school was in session. 

Reimbursements not enough

Aside from cash reserves, if they had any, these school programs now depend almost exclusively on government reimbursements from a U.S. Department of Agriculture program normally designed to feed students during summer and winter breaks. 

USDA’s Summer Food Service Program has also been a resource for school food programs in emergency situations, like hurricanes or tornadoes. But the program has never been used for a crisis this widespread.

Students were required to sit and eat the free meals in the center serving the meals, but the USDA has waived that requirement because of the pandemic.

The reimbursement rate for most sites is $2.375 per breakfast and $4.15 for every lunch. But Gilbert and other food service coordinators are often surpassing that amount because they’re having to pay more for individually wrapped items, increased transport costs and packaging.

Congress in March passed a measure that cleared the way for families to receive food stamp benefitsto cover the cost of meals children would have normally eaten in school. Only 30 states have qualified for the program so far, and school food officials say lines are still long at their drive-thru and walk-up meal pickups.

On April 27, a group of more than three dozen national school associations, nutritional groups and other nonprofits sent a letter urging Congress to provide school meal programs nationwide with $2.6 billion in the next congressional relief package “to mitigate a portion of the estimated, significant financial loss that school nutrition programs have and will continue to experience.”

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The House responded by including $3 billion earmarked for school nutrition programs in the $3 trillion Heroes Act, which passed in May by a narrow margin. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said last week that if lawmakers consider another relief bill it would have to be narrower in scope than what the House passed.

In the meantime, other nonprofits and food banks who have stepped in to provide free meals for children have also felt the strain. 

In March, several YMCA chapters stepped in to feed schoolchildren in places where coronavirus outbreaks forced school districts to shutter or suspend food distributions and also started feeding programs to supplement efforts of districts with fully functioning feeding programs.

Stacey McDaniel, specialist for the YMCA’s Anti-Hunger Initiatives program, says the organization lost $400 million nationwide in April alone.

“Not serving the children and families in our communities is not an option for us,” McDaniel said. “We’re going to keep going for as long as we can.”

Families pick up their free breakfast and lunch that was delivered on a school bus to Park Place at Loyola apartments in late March. The Austin district continue to provide free meals to its students and their parents, including on weekends, amid the school closures caused by the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo: JAY JANNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Grim outlook for fall

As stretched thin as school food operations are now, program leaders say their needs will only intensify if schools reopen in the fall, especially if there’s no money for school nutrition in another relief bill.

Aside from social distancing for students, schools will also have to figure out how to prepare and serve foods in cafeterias while adhering to social distancing measures for employees. 

And while cafeterias are already running low on protective equipment and cleaning supplies, Wilson and others say they’ll need a stockpile of those items before they welcome children back.

Pratt-Heavner of the School Nutrition Association predicts that the increased need for free and reduced lunch will present another problem that schools will have to handle in the fall.

In current emergency feeding programs, children and parents don’t have to prove that they qualify for free meals. That will change in the fall, and with unemployment rates skyrocketing because of the pandemic, it is unclear how much more profound the needs will be.

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And unless schools receive a special waiver to serve all meals for free, they will have to charge children full price for meals unless their parents complete and turn in free lunch applications.

“The application is challenging, and they also have to be processed,” Pratt-Heavner said. “At a time when schools and parents will already be dealing with a number of complicated questions, they’d also have to worry about that.”

Food programs in U.S. public schools have traditionally been self-sustaining entities, meaning that they operate from their own budgets while the districts they serve focus on teachers’ salaries, facility maintenance and other costs associated with running schools.

That may change for programs like Orange County schools in the fall, as Gilbert predicts her program will run out of money by August. Any aid from the district is likely to cut into money for classrooms or other school programs.

Another concern, for Gilbert, Rowe and other food service coordinators across the county, is that the quality of the meals they feed students will suffer, meaning children like Stella Antey won’t have as many healthy options at school — whether they pay for them or not.

“Things won’t be as fresh,” Gilbert says. “We won’t be able to cook as much from scratch.”

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