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Contact: Diane Pratt-Heavner
SNA Survey Reveals COVID-19 School Meal Trends, Financial Impacts
SNA calls on Congress to address looming funding crisis
ARLINGTON, VA – A new School Nutrition Association (SNA) survey highlights expansive efforts to provide needy students safe access to school meals during COVID-19 closures, but also reveals significant concerns about the financial sustainability of school meal programs. More than 90% of responding school meal program directors either anticipate a financial loss (68%) for their programs this school year or are uncertain about financial losses (23%).
Impact of COVID-19 on School Nutrition Programs – Part 2 yielded responses from school nutrition professionals working on the frontlines to feed hungry students in 1,894 school districts nationwide. Conducted from April 30 – May 8, the survey shows 95% of respondents were engaged in emergency meal assistance, and combined, these districts reported serving more than 134 million meals in April alone.
Nearly all respondents report offering lunch (99%) and breakfast (94%), with districts distributing meals in a variety of ways:
- 81% have drive through pick up sites; this model is the primary means of serving meals for 64% of districts that utilize multiple meal distribution methods.
- 58% allow students/families to walk up to feeding sites.
- 42% deliver meals directly to student homes.
- 32% utilize bus routes for distribution.
- 13.5% partner with local food banks/organizations to provide meals/food assistance.
Emergency meal options vary from one school district to the next based on staffing, product availability, food safety concerns and other challenges associated with new grab-and-go, curbside service. Outside of cold meal options, such as sandwiches and salads:
- 65% of districts reported offering entrees/sides to be heated at home.
- 64% distribute shelf-stable meals.
- 36% offer hot meals.
- 16% serve bulk foods, such as gallons of milk, loaves of bread and heads of lettuce.
- 22% include locally sourced foods in their meals.
Forty-three percent of districts report serving meals five days a week. As schools seek ways to minimize physical contact, many districts report offering multiple days’ worth of meals at a time to reduce the number of serving days. Other widely adopted tactics to ensure the safety of students and staff include: providing and/or requiring masks for staff; conducting more frequent cleaning; limiting the number of staff at meal preparation and distribution locations; and spreading out meal preparation and packaging stations.
COVID-19 closures have had a dramatic impact on school meal program budgets. Financial losses to the school nutrition program ranked as respondents’ top concern, cited by 90% as a serious or moderate concern.
The 68% of survey respondents anticipating financial losses were asked if they could estimate their losses for School Year 2019/2020.
- 861 school districts reported combined estimated financial losses of more than $626.4 million.
- The median estimated loss per district was $200,000; however, among the largest districts (student enrollment 25,000+), median estimated loss was $2.35 million.
School meal programs routinely operate on extremely tight budgets, funded by cafeteria sales and reimbursements for meals served. With schools closed and stay at home orders in place, fewer meals are served, and school meal programs are unable to earn additional a la carte and catering revenue to offset costs:
- 80% of respondents reported their district is serving fewer meals since school closures.
- Of these districts, 59% have seen the number of meals served drop by 50% or more.
Meanwhile, school meal programs struggle to cover fixed costs and staff salaries, as well as COVID-19 expenses such as grab and go carts, packaging supplies, meal transportation costs and PPE. These significant financial losses could impact schools’ ability to serve students this coming school year.
“As schools closed their doors, school nutrition professionals quickly transitioned from cafeteria service to curbside pickup, and have continued serving on the frontlines to ensure hungry students have access to healthy meals during COVID-19 closures,” said SNA President Gay Anderson, SNS. “Despite these tireless efforts, school meal programs nationwide are experiencing crippling financial losses that could impede efforts to serve students next year. With a growing number of families dependent on school meals, Congress must act to ensure school meal programs are equipped to nourish students this fall.”
These survey findings come following the House of Representatives’ passage of H.R. 6800, The Heroes Act, which includes $3 billion in emergency funding to help child nutrition programs cover costs associated with COVID-19 school closures. SNA called for swift final passage of the bill to address the funding crisis and ensure school meal programs have adequate funds to restock school kitchens and serve students next school year.
Impact of COVID-19 on School Nutrition Programs – Part 2 follows the release of SNA’s March COVID-19 survey.
About School Nutrition Association:
The School Nutrition Association (SNA) is a national, non-profit professional organization representing more than 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