The School Nutrition Association (SNA) has published the results of its recent survey assessing what K-12 operators are doing to keep students fed during school closures due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Conducted from March 12-16, the survey yielded responses from 1,769 school districts nationwide, representing 39,978 schools. Among responding districts, 1,211 said they were either already providing emergency meal and food assistance or were developing plans to feed students during school closures.
Most respondents said they’re planning to serve grab-and-go meals at a limited number of schools using drive-thru pick up. At some districts, students are able to get two or more meals each day depending on approval from state agencies. Respondents also said they’re trying to deliver meals to approved community sites or apartment complexes to help make sure students in high-need areas are receiving meals. Others are using school bus routes to drop off meals throughout their communities.
Along with worries that students could potentially go hungry during school closures, the survey also revealed that one of the top concerns for respondents is the financial and physical well-being of their staff.
“Staffing and safety will be the largest hurdle,” one respondent said. “If we are closed to protect the public, we are ALL the public. Granted, school kitchens are probably the cleanest and most sanitary places to be in the world; however, what the staff are exposed to during preparations and distribution are counterproductive, especially if doing multiple stops to drop meals on a route.”
Regulatory hurdles were also cited as a problem, with some respondents saying that because they do not qualify for the Summer Food Service Program, they were unsure if they would receive reimbursement for the meals.
“I have been asked to have a plan to feed students,” another survey respondent said. “At this time, I do not qualify for any USDA program to feed students under these circumstances. I am hopeful that if I design grab-and-go meals under the [National School Lunch Program], that USDA will allow reimbursement for [free and reduced price-eligible] students.”
Just under half (46%) of respondents are at “Area Eligible” schools, meaning that 50% or more of their students are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals. Schools that are Area Eligible are permitted to serve all students free meals during COVID-19 closures. Schools that are not Area Eligible, however, have to carefully track individual students’ eligibility for free or reduced-price meals. The SNA says this further complicates meal distribution efforts because it requires schools to have additional contact with families and disrupts efforts to maintain social distancing. In a letter to the USDA earlier this month, the SNA asked the USDA and Congress to expand eligibility for summer meal programs and allow schools to serve children free meals without having to verify their eligibility during the pandemic.