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Contact: Diane Pratt-Heavner
SNA Survey Finds School Meal Programs’ Financial Losses Mount
Report shows extensive efforts to nourish students during pandemic
ARLINGTON, VA – A new survey from the School Nutrition Association (SNA) reveals the severe financial toll school meal programs have incurred as they adapt to safely meet the nutritional needs of students during the pandemic. Fifty-four percent of responding school districts reported a financial loss in School Year (SY) 2019/20 and a harrowing 62% anticipate a loss this school year, with an additional 28% of respondents unsure of what to expect.
Among the 844 districts that reported their SY 2019/20 losses, the median loss was $150,000, however districts with an enrollment of 25,000+ saw a median net loss of $2.3 million. Total combined losses exceeded $483.5 million.
During COVID-19 school closures in March and April 2020, schools served almost 400 million fewer meals compared to the prior year, according to a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report. The resulting drop in federal meal reimbursements and corresponding loss of a la carte and catering revenue left school meal programs struggling to manage rising costs and new expenses, including meal packaging and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). The financial imbalance has school meal program directors wary for SY 2020/21; financial loss was the top concern in SNA’s survey, cited by 93% of respondents.
“With food insecurity on the rise in communities across the nation, school meal programs offer a critical safety net to families struggling to put food on the table during the pandemic. Congress must act to ensure these school meal programs remain on solid financial footing,” said SNA President Reggie Ross, SNS. “We urge the Senate to pass the Heroes Act 2.0, providing desperately needed emergency relief funds for school meal programs to support America’s students.”
Impact of COVID-19 on School Nutrition Programs – Back to School 2020, released during National School Lunch Week, yielded responses from school nutrition directors working to nourish students in 1,614 school districts nationwide. Conducted from September 9 – 24, the survey also reveals ways school meal programs have adjusted meal service to evolving school learning models and schedules.
Regulatory waivers extended on October 9 ensure schools can continue grab-and-go, curbside meal pick-up and offering free meals to all students through the end of SY 2020/21. Serving meals to all students at no charge will help support student meal participation, a concern cited by 92% of respondents; however, schools with distance learners are expected to continue serving fewer meals than they would if students were attending school daily.
Among districts that served/planned to serve students engaged in distance learning in September:
- 91% of respondents offered grab and go meal pick-up
- 24% provided take home meals to hybrid students to eat on their distance learning days
- 16% delivered meals along bus routes
- 15% delivered meals directly to student homes
Among districts that served/planned to serve students in any school buildings:
- 81% had students collect their meals in the cafeteria
- 58% delivered meals to the classroom
- 28% had students collect meals at kiosks
SNA’s survey reveals school meal programs have expanded offerings beyond school breakfast and lunch, with 33% offering adult meals upon request (not for reimbursement), 22% offering Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program snacks and 11% offering supper, among other services.
“As students have shifted between remote learning and hybrid schedules, school nutrition professionals have quickly and creatively adapted their programs. Ensuring children can safely receive nutritious school meals is a huge relief for families struggling with economic uncertainty or the exhaustion of balancing work and distance learning schedules,” said Ross.
The survey shows widespread implementation of numerous food safety and sanitation procedures and the enforcement of social distancing to minimize contact between students and staff during meal service. The waiver extensions support these efforts by speeding up meal distribution and eliminating requirements to collect payment or verify student eligibility for free meals.
School menus are varied; nearly all districts reported offering entrees and sides to be heated at home as well as shelf-stable meals. More school meal programs are also serving locally sourced foods (29%) and providing bulk foods such as gallons of milk and loaves of bread (22%).
About School Nutrition Association:
The School Nutrition Association (SNA) is a national, non-profit professional organization representing 55,000 school nutrition professionals across the country. Founded in 1946, SNA and its members are dedicated to making healthy school meals and nutrition education available to all students. For more information on school meals, visit www.SchoolNutrition.org/SchoolMeals.