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

Coronavirus cases fell by 15% this week

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Data: The COVID Tracking Project, state health departments; Map: Andrew Witherspoon, Sara Wise/Axios

New coronavirus infections fell by almost 15% over the past week, continuing a steady downward trend.

Why it matters: The standard caveats still apply — progress can always fall apart, the U.S. is climbing down from a very high number of cases, and this is far from over. But this is undeniably good news. Things are getting better.

Updated Sep 18, 2020 - Health

World coronavirus updates

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Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Axios Visuals

Though health workers represent less than 3% of the population in many countries, they account for around 14% of the coronavirus cases reported to the World Health Organization, WHO announced Thursday.

Why it matters: The WHO called on governments and health care leaders to address threats facing the health and safety of these workers, adding that the pandemic has highlighted how protecting them is needed to ensure a functioning health care system.

Aug 26, 2020 - Health

Carson: It would "behoove" us to move forward with COVID-19 vaccine and treatment testing

Screenshot: Axios Events

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson says "this is not necessarily the time to take everything slowly" when it comes to the Trump administration's approach to getting vaccines and treatments to the public.

Why it matters: Carson's comments, made Wednesday during an Axios virtual event, came days after the Food and Drug Administration announced an emergency use authorization (EUA) for treating the coronavirus with convalescent plasma. President Trump accused the agency of slow-walking the development and approval of vaccines and therapeutics to hurt him politically.