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School Food Service Directors Fear Children Will Go Hungry During Coronavirus Crisis

The federal government has granted waivers and passed legislation to make it easier for schools to serve meals to students during coronavirus-related school closures, but the nation's food service directors are still worried that children will go hungry, a new national survey reveals.

According to a survey from the School Nutrition Association, 91 percent of directors are at least moderately concerned that students will miss meals during the school shutdowns. Nearly the same share is concerned about the financial hit their school meal programs, which depend almost entirely on cafeteria sales and federal reimbursements for meals served, will take.

Tens of millions of students rely on the free or discounted meals they eat at school—and that number could rise in the coming weeks and months as more people lose work as the effects of the coronavirus epidemic hit the U.S. job market.

Among the nation's food service directors, there is also widespread unease about food service staff: the loss of income for furloughed employees, the safety for those preparing and distributing meals to children, and whether employees will continue to be available and willing to work during closures, the survey shows.

"I do worry about the safety of my staff distributing meals," one survey respondent wrote. "We are limiting contact for a reason, but then I am asking my staff to go and increase their potential contact."

Conducted from March 12 through March 16, the survey includes responses from 1,769 school districts nationwide, representing about 40,000 schools. Nearly 70 percent of the districts reported that, at the time of the survey, they were feeding children during coronavirus-related school closures or developing plans to do so. But that number could be artificially low.

Dozens of states have shut down school systems in the time since the survey was first sent to food service directors. As of March 20, at least 45 states have now closed schools, an Education Week interactive map of school closures indicates.

In the survey, most directors indicated that, to practice social distancing, their districts will use grab-and-go meals at school sites or drive-thru pick-up in school bus loops or parking lots.

Some districts plan to allow students to get two meals each day, while others will hand out two- or three-day supplies of grab-and-go meals at one time.

Concerned that staff and students would have trouble reaching school sites, some districts plan to deliver meals to approved community sites or apartment complexes for distribution to high-need areas or use school bus routes to drop off meals throughout the community.

Earlier this week, President Donald Trump signed legislation designed to make it easier for students to access food, including those meals typically served by schools. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has also approved waivers for all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico that allow schools to bypass "congregate feeding" requirements that mandate providing meals to children in group settings.

But even before Congress passed the legislation, survey respondents expressed frustration with federal regulations that hinder "efficient execution" of emergency feeding plans.

For example, schools where more than 50 percent or more of students are eligible for free- or reduced-price school meals are permitted to serve all children free meals during COVID-19 closures, which simplifies emergency meal service. All other schools must carefully track each child's eligibility for free or reduced-price meals, a distinction that could require additional contact with families and hinder efforts to maintain social distancing.

"These programs are very highly regulated on a normal day," said Diane Pratt-Heavner, the director of media relations for the School Nutrition Association. "It's just a real challenge to deal with all these rules when you're operating in an emergency situation."

Related Reading

Shut Down by Coronavirus, Schools Scramble to Feed Students

Map: Coronavirus and School Closures

Employee Pay During Shutdowns a Major Dilemma

How Does Coronavirus Affect Children?

Image Credit: School Nutrition Association; Education Week

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