May 9, 2020 - Health

Schools struggle to afford meals for low-income kids

Illustration of a school lunch tray in abstract colors and shapes
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Many public schools that are closed by the coronavirus pandemic are still providing lunches to low-income students who would otherwise go hungry. Some are serving entire families and other community members, acting more like soup kitchens than school cafeterias.

Why it matters: About half of all U.S. public schoolchildren rely on free or reduced-price meals, a figure that is expected to rise as more parents become unemployed.

How it works: Free school lunches are partially subsidized by kids paying full freight, thus putting added pressure on local budgets at a time of falling tax revenue.

  • Public schools also receive nutrition subsidies from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has provided extra flexibility — but not extra money — to cover school lunch shortfalls, let alone for the extra expenses tied to hazard pay, expanded safety and distribution.
  • USDA is, however, providing emergency weekly stipends for children in 16 states who normally would receive free or reduced-price school meals.

Around the country:

  • Cincinnati's school district is only able to serve 10% of its 60,000 student meals because safety protocols required using smaller kitchens. It expects to lose $2.1 million on dining services from March 16 to May 22.
  • Chesapeake (Ohio) and Salem (Missouri) school districts suspended their meal programs entirely, handing them over to local nonprofits. "We have not heard any complaints that our kids aren't getting fed," Arthur Suiter, school board president of Chesapeake, tells Axios.
  • Northborough-Southborough (Massachusetts) regional school district usually ends each year with upwards of a $10,000 balance in its food services budget, but now anticipates a shortfall of between $50,000 and $75,000. "We're still getting federal reimbursement for the actual food, but not for the labor," explains superintendent Greg Martineau.
  • New York City is funding its school meals program via the mayor's $170 million emergency food program. 5,000 Department of Education staffers have prepared and distributed 470,000 meals a day for 475 pickup sites.

What to watch: The USDA has not yet told school districts if they’ll be allowed to continue feeding students and their families past June 30, when the current waiver expires.

  • "We’re kind of in a holding pattern waiting for guidance from USDA on how this will play out," says Barbara Harral, who oversees summer food services for Maryland's Montgomery County schools.
  • "I’m stuck with having to tell my scholars, my families and my community that we can't be there for them," adds Jessica Shelly, director of student dining services for Cincinnati Public Schools.
Go deeper