SNA: School nutrition programs face ‘crippling financial losses’ that threaten service for next year

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty
Source: Getty

Related tags school meals School Nutrition Association coronavirus

Higher costs associated with serving school meals to needy children during the coronavirus pandemic paired with reduced program participation are generating “crippling financial losses” that could compromise efforts to serve students next year unless Congress provides emergency financial relief, according to the School Nutrition Association.

The non-profit professional organization representing school nutrition professionals nationwide is calling for “swift final passage”​ of The Heroes Act​ (HR 6800), which was introduced by House democrats May 12 and includes financial relief for school meal programs.

The bill includes $3b in emergency funding to help child nutrition programs cover costs associated with coronavirus-related school closures and would distribute funds “based on a formula that takes into account the typical level of reimbursement a program would receive to operate the program, and the reimbursement being received during the pandemic,”​ explained SNA in release.

Without this emergency support, SNA says school meal programs, which operate on notoriously tight budgets, may not be able to cover fixed costs, staff salaries and additional COVID-19 related expenses, such as grab-and-go carts, packaging supplies, meal transportation expenses and personal protective equipment. This in turn could impact schools’ ability to serve students in the coming school year, the trade group argues.

SNA explained that school meal programs rely on reimbursement for meals and cafeteria sales, including a la carte and catering revenue. However, with schools closed, fewer students are participating in the school meals program and the opportunity to generate additional revenue to offset costs is not available.

At the same time, a survey ​conducted recently by SNA found most schools continue to offer emergency meal assistance to food insecure children, despite the threat of financial loss.

According to the survey conducted April 30 – May 8, 68% of responding school meal program directors anticipate financial loss and 23% are uncertain about financial losses for the school year.

Of the 68% who anticipated financial losses, 861 school districts reported a combined financial loss of more than $626.4m, with the median estimated loss per district coming in at $200,000. For larger school districts the estimated losses were even higher with a median estimated loss of $2.35m, according to the survey.

Some of this loss is due to lower participation in the meal program. The survey revealed 80% of respondents reported their districts were serving fewer meals since schools closed due to the threat of coronavirus. Of these districts, 59% saw participation drop by 50% or more, according to SNA.

While the drop means that schools need to buy less food, this doesn’t mean they are saving money. On the contrary, prices per meal often go up when fewer children participate because schools are unable to leverage savings for bulk purchases. In addition, the fixed staffing costs are distributed among fewer participants.

Safety measures add expense

In addition, the safety measures necessary to protect children, parents and employees from the coronavirus while making, delivering or picking up the meals have added costs.

Among the most expensive are delivery models that require meals be dropped off at students’ homes, as offered by 42% of districts. An additional 32% use bus routes for distribution. Most schools, however, have drive-through pick up sites (81%) or walk-up feeding sites (58%), according to the survey.

Schools also must provide or require masks for staff, clean surfaces more frequently and spread out meal prep and packaging stations. Other strategies to reduce physical contact include offering multiple days’ worth of meals at a time to reduce the number of serving days.

The added expense of these services and safety measures is eating into limited school funds and could hinder some districts’ ability to restock their kitchens next academic year, warns SNA.

USDA extends waivers, pandemic-EBT

To further help ensure that schools can safely deliver school meals to children in need, USDA previously enacted multiple waivers to ease distribution. On May 15, the department extended three of those waivers​ for the summer through Aug. 31. These include waivers for non-congregate feeding, parent pickup and flexibility around meal times to allow for more grab-and-go options and the distribution of multiple days-worth of meals at one time.

Recognizing that not all schools that provide meals during the academic year continue to do so in the summer months, USDA also is pushing forward pandemic-EBT. This would provide funds equal to the value of school meals to households to help cover the cost of feeding children who otherwise would receive free or reduced-price meals at school.

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