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School nutrition programs continue to face financial challenges, SNA study reveals

Over half of respondents reported a financial loss for last school year, and 62% anticipate one this year.
Photograph: Shutterstock

School nutrition programs across the country continue to face financial losses due to COVID-19, according to a recent survey released by the School Nutrition Association (SNA).  

Over half of survey respondents (52%) reported a financial loss last school year and 62% anticipate one this year, while 28% of respondents aren’t sure what to expect. 

Among the 844 districts that reported a loss for the 2019-20 school year, the median loss was $150,000. Districts with an enrollment of 25,000 students or greater, however, saw a median loss of $2.3 million. Total combined losses exceeded $483.5 million. 

When the pandemic hit this spring, schools served almost 400 million fewer meals than the prior year and saw a drop in a la carte and catering revenues. School nutrition programs also faced rising costs due to aspects such as increased meal packaging and the need for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

The SNA is urging the U.S. Senate to take further action to support struggling school nutrition programs by passing the Heroes Act 2.0, which would provide additional funding for school meal programs, increased flexibility for the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP) in low-income communities and more. 

“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," SNA President Reggie Ross said in a statement. "Congress must act to ensure these school meal programs remain on solid financial footing." 

The survey also revealed how districts are providing meals to students this school year. For districts participating in remote learning, grab-and-go meal pick-up was the most common method of service, with 91% of respondents saying they offered it.

Respondents also say they’re feeding students by offering home meals to those on hybrid learning schedules (24%), delivering meals along bus routes (16%) and delivering meals directly to student homes (15%).

For schools with students learning on-site or that are planning to do so this school year, having students collect their meals in the cafeteria is the most popular serving method, with 81% saying this is how they serve students. Over half (58%) of respondents say they deliver meals to the classroom, and 28% of respondents say they have students collect their meals at kiosks. 

A third of respondents also say they offer adult meals upon request (and not for reimbursement), while 22% say they offer Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program snacks and 11% offer supper.

The SNA survey was conducted from Sept. 9-24 and included 1,614 school districts throughout the country.

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