School Lunch Programs Are Rapidly Going Broke

Schools are keeping kids fed, losing millions of dollars in the process. They fear they will have to make deep cuts next year, when the country is still reeling.
Children pick up free lunches at Kenmore Middle School in Arlington, Virginia, on March 16, after schools in the area closed due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Children pick up free lunches at Kenmore Middle School in Arlington, Virginia, on March 16, after schools in the area closed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

In communities around the country, schools may be the only institutions making sure that hungry children and their families are fed. They’ve opened grab-and-go lunch stations and started delivering meals to neighborhoods by bus. But some programs are also going broke, losing millions of dollars. School administrators fear that they’ll have to make deep cuts next year if the federal government doesn’t provide relief.

Even as schools have closed, their cafeterias have remained open. Their fixed food expenses have remained the same and, in some cases, even increased while their revenue has dropped precipitously. Free and reduced-price lunches are reimbursed by the government on a per meal basis. Even as more families rely on these lunches, schools are still serving drastically fewer meals than they would during a typical school year, leading to shortfalls that, by some estimates, could reach $19 million in larger districts in the next few months.

“Schools have literally become communities’ emergency feeding sites,” said Katie Wilson, executive director of the Urban School Food Alliance, a professional organization of the nation’s largest school districts. “This whole thing is starting to snowball into an immense amount of debt no one is really paying attention to.”

Unless the federal government steps in, school nutrition administrators worry they will have to make deep cuts next year, even as families continue to need their services. Advocates who work for organizations like the School Nutrition Association and the Urban School Food Alliance are lobbying the Department of Agriculture, which oversees school lunch programs, and Congress to provide enhanced relief.

School nutrition programs and their budgets exist separately from a school’s general fund. As nutrition programs look to patch shortfalls, they’re concerned they will have to lay off staff members, who have spent months putting themselves on the line, and cut the variety of food served, even when schools are set to see a huge influx of kids who qualify for free lunches. To cover the costs, they may also have to get help from their school’s general fund at a time when the schools are also facing shortfalls if kids are put in smaller classes and teachers have to make up for months of lost learning time.

“A lot of schools are working through their or have worked through their inventory as they prepare these meals, and they need enough funding to fill their refrigerators again next fall,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations for the School Nutrition Association.

Schools are still paying school nutrition workers, sometimes extra as the job becomes increasingly hazardous. They’re working to provide families with days’ worth of meals in an effort to minimize contact, which requires expensive packaging. Some schools are attempting to provide families with shelf-stable items, which cost more, in case they lack refrigeration.

They’re going deeply in debt as they serve fewer, albeit more expensive meals. Meals provided to adults ― who are also increasingly in need of free food ― are not reimbursable. On top of that, schools are not making nearly as much money from the students who typically pay full price to purchase à la carte items.

In the Cleveland Municipal School District in Ohio, nearly 60% of students qualify for food benefits, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The district has been serving about 10,000 meals a day ― including breakfast and lunch ― to a district of more than 36,000 kids, according to Chris Burkhardt, director of school nutrition.

But reimbursement for these meals isn’t nearly enough to make up for the additional costs they’ve incurred. The program sends buses to pick kids up from their community school ― typically within walking distance of their home ― to bring them to one of their 22 central food sites. They’re keeping all their school nutrition workers on payroll ― whether working or not ― and paying extra to those on the front lines. Pre-packaging food, instead of cooking from scratch, to reduce the risk of contamination is also costing more. They’re paying custodians and school safety workers in open buildings.

“[The expenses] are on our minds. It’s not impacting our decisions, though, because we know students need food. That’s our primary concern right now,” said Burkhardt.

In Littleton Public Schools in Colorado, a district where only 17% of students normally qualify for free or reduced-price lunches ― they’re serving just 10% of what they would normally serve to the whole district, according to Jessica Gould, the district’s director of nutrition services. The district has sent buses into neighborhoods as feeding sites, stationing themselves near hot spots of hunger, three days a week, packaging several meals at a time. But they’ve incurred huge costs for additional packaging in the process. In districts like hers, they also typically generate a lot of revenue from à la carte items ― extra items that kids can purchase to add to their meal, which is now lost.

Looking into the future, she worries about how she’ll be able to keep her staff.

“We’ll take everything we can get,” Gould said.

Wilson said that the large districts she works with are set to lose $12 million to $19 million each through June 30. One of her districts rented three refrigerated trucks to deliver food to students for the next three months. That alone cost $95,000.

“These are costs they never assumed they were going to have,” Wilson said. “It’s an unbelievable storm.”

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