Skip to content

Unclear back-to-school plans add uncertainty for meal providers

Disruptions are expected in the coming year

School food directors across the country are preparing for an uncertain year as their trade association calls for the Agriculture Department to consider giving all schools the option to provide free meals to all students.

The School Nutrition Association, citing double-digit unemployment rates due to the COVID-19 pandemic, sent a letter asking the USDA to extend 10 national waivers that eased rules such as requiring students to sit down and eat their meals in a central location. The association also wants the USDA to lift a rule for the 2020-21 school year that says open sites for meals must be in communities where at least 50 percent of the children come from families with incomes at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty line. If the rule is waived, school meal providers could distribute food free of charge to any child within a site’s service area.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said Wednesday that the USDA is extending a COVID-19 waiver through the summer so school districts and nonprofit groups operating summer open meal programs can continue to serve universal free meals in areas where less than half the children come from low-income households.

Under the national lunch and breakfast programs, the department reimburses participating schools for free or reduced-price meals. The School Nutrition Association’s spokeswoman, Diane Pratt-Heavner, said the organization would like the USDA to allow schools or districts interested in providing universal free meals on campus to do so. The option, known as community eligibility, is currently available to schools where 40 percent of the enrolled student population receives some form of public assistance.

30 million students a day

In March, the USDA gained authority to quickly issue nationwide waivers to feed low-income children who depended on free or reduced-priced meals after schools suspended classes to slow transmission of the novel coronavirus. 

On average, about 30 million students participate daily in the school lunch program, with 21 million of them qualifying for free or reduced-price meals.

Public health directives against dine-in service shut down cafeteria service. Without the waivers, many school meal providers could not have provided off-site meals that qualified for USDA reimbursement. The waivers also allowed meal providers flexibility on items in a meal as long as the total meal meets nutrition standards.

Pratt-Heavner said the organization wants the free meals as an option for food directors in districts that will keep some or all students at home receiving online education. In those cases, meal providers would be able to reach more children with grab-and-go operations or deliveries by bus if they don’t have to do the paperwork required to determine if a family’s income qualifies a child for free meals.

Ohio, Colorado examples

Across the country, school food service directors like Jessica Shelly of Cincinnati Public Schools in Ohio and Jessica Gould of Littleton Public Schools in Colorado are trying to be ready for whatever back-to-school plan their school boards approve. Both say current USDA waivers allowed them to continue breakfasts and lunches for students and to operate their summer feeding programs.

“Tell them we’re grateful. They moved with lightning speed for USDA,” said Shelly, director of student dining services for the district.

In Cincinnati, the school board will make recommendations by the end of June for opening schools in the fall. The scenarios include one that calls for staggered attendance by students to accommodate social distancing that could have students splitting days between in-class attendance and distance learning. Under that scenario, Shelly said her staff would have to provide boxes of take-home meals for students for days when they are home.

“Every single option that I have set in place here requires USDA to extend a current waiver or to initiate a new waiver, or else I’m not going to be able to feed a significant population of my scholars, and that’s terrifying,” Shelly said. 

Shelly said 84 percent of the district’s students already qualify for a free or reduced-price meal, which means many students rely on their schools for food. A waiver that allowed her staff to provide grab-and-go meals at locations beyond school campuses “was a lifesaver” in the 2019-20 school year to provide free meals.

She would need that waiver and the ability to serve meals on campuses or classrooms during the days on which students attend.

Shelly also stressed that her food program not only feeds children but also is an economic engine for area farmers, food manufacturers and food distributors as they fill her orders for thousands of meals a day. In pre-COVID-19 days, her staff of 400 served 16,000 breakfasts and 23,000 lunches each day. Right now, the school district is doing summer feeding and serving about 10 percent of students with 125 staff working.

In Littleton, Gould, the district’s nutrition director, is part of a task force that will recommend looking at several approaches for the district to reopen in the fall. If enough parents decide they want to continue online education for their children, Gould said her staff will need waivers to continue to deliver meals to designated stops for students rather than serving them on campuses. Her district covers 21 schools and before COVID-19 served more than 5,000 meals a day during the school year.  

For students in classrooms, Gould said her staff would provide meals for children who can pay full price as well as for those who qualify for free and reduced-price meals. The classroom model might allow Gould to make a la carte sales for snacks like carbonated fruit juice, reduced-fat chips, popcorn and whole-grain cookies.

When the district suspended classes in March, waivers helped her continue meals for children who qualify for subsidized meals but the a la carte sales that account for 25 percent of her $4 million budget ended.

Gould also would like the waiver for universal free meals, although 18 percent of the students in her district’s lunch program qualified for free or reduced-price meals before COVID-19. She said she has talked with parents who felt secure about their jobs before COVID-19 but now worry about staying employed as the economy recovers from a recession caused by the pandemic.

“Ultimately from me, the ask to USDA is [about] encompassing all the what-ifs,” she said.