Written by Alejandra Cleves Morales (Intern), Cynthia Walters and Margaret Read (Member), Ed Yowell (Chair), SFUSA Food and Farm Policy Steering Committee
A Spring Semester Like No Other
There is little doubt that the nation’s 2020 spring semester was like no other within memory. States and municipalities’ widely varying efforts to contain the spread of Covid-19 resulted in a common effect: some 29 million students participating in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) were out of school, sheltering at home, and potentially losing access to school meals. About 22 million of these school children are from low-income households and are eligible for free and reduced-price NSLP lunches that provide much of their daily nutritional requirements.
Mindful of a looming nutrition crisis, exacerbated by bounding rates of unemployment and food insecurity, school districts reacted, taking advantage of USDA waivers on normal school nutrition program requirements, and their school nutrition professionals stepped up. Putting aside their fears of infection and carrying it home to their families, school food workers nimbly supported a range of school districts’ actions – from offering grab-and-go lunches in densely populated areas, like New York City, to providing pre-packed meals for school buses delivering meals instead of picking up children in less densely populated areas, like Denver. The waivers that have facilitated school districts’ effective action will continue through the new school year. However, while extending waivers, the USDA has declined to make all school meals free for all students during the pandemic, requiring families to apply for free and reduced-price lunches during a time of spiking SNAP eligibility.
In addition to local action, the federal government implemented two pandemic response nutrition programs – Meals-to-You and Pandemic EBT (P-EBT). Meals-to-You, a variant of the Administration’s largely discredited Harvest Box program intended to supplant household SNAP benefits, shipped weekly boxes of shelf-stable food to about one million school children in participating rural school districts. Adhering to the ground-breaking school nutrition standards of the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) of 2010 was subordinated to the imperative of feeding children. For instance, the Meals-to-You program meets the USDA Summer Food Service Program breakfast and lunch standards, which are less rigorous than HHFKA School Breakfast and National School Lunch Program standards.
The P-EBT provision of the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act of 2020 authorized the USDA to approve states’ emergency plans to temporarily provide for the increased costs of lunch at home for children eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch during pandemic related school closures Presently, forty-six states have applied and are approved to provide P-EBT benefits.
Back to School
As spring semester innovation became the new normal, so will innovation be the hallmark of the fall semester in many schools. States and municipalities, based on their differing perceptions of balancing Covid-19 infection rates with returns to pre-pandemic social and economic activity, have different plans to reopen schools this summer, in some places, and in the fall, in all places. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has provided guidance for schools operating during the pandemic.
- Student density should be reduced, with students attending school less than five days per week.
- Student arrival, recess, and dismissal schedules should be staggered.
- Classes, to the extent possible, should not mix in common spaces like halls, auditoriums, gyms, art and music rooms, and lunchrooms.
- School food services should provide individually wrapped, pre-packed food, instead of offering buffet service.
These guidelines could end school lunch as we have known it.
The School Nutrition Association (SNA) is a national, nonprofit, professional organization representing more than 55,000 members who provide meals to students in schools across the country. In their publication, “Thought Starters on Reopening Schools for SY 2020-21,” they write, “Unfortunately, the start of this summer is not the hoped-for return to normal for school nutrition operations. Instead, it’s the beginning of what some SNA members are predicting will be ‘the hardest year’ of their careers.” The publication advises flexibility and adaptability.
- Plan for multiple menu approaches. Menus typically drive school meal decisions. In SY2020-21, menu decisions likely will be driven by other factors such as staffing fluctuations, preparation practices adjusted for social distancing, and dining venue possibilities including classroom delivery and dining, cafeteria service with classroom dining, and take-home meals.
- Prepare for staggered student schedules and dining options. Students may attend school fewer than five days a week, on alternate weeks, or on partial days. Schools may be open five days per week, or more, and for conventional school hours, or longer. To accommodate schedules, school nutrition services may provide meals for school dining and for taking home and may operate long days to provide breakfast and lunch service as well as after school snack and supper service.
- Prepare for staff health screening, managing around staff absence, strict staff distancing, handwashing, face-covering, and glove-wearing protocols, and intensified sanitizing and disinfecting practices.
A spring SNA member survey reveals significant concern about the financial sustainability of school food programs in the coming school year. With schools closed and shelter-in-place orders in force during the spring, fewer school meals were served, a la carte meal and catering revenues were gone, and some districts offered non-reimbursable free lunches to all in need, regardless of school enrollment and free and reduced-price lunch ineligibility. In addition to covering staff and other costs, programs have incurred new Covid-19 related expenses such as for new grab-and-go carts, individual portion and meal packaging, meal transportation, and staff PPE. These revenue losses, new expenses, and state and local jurisdictions’ Covid-19 related tax revenue declines could impact schools’ ability to safely serve students healthy, nutritious food in September. The SNA survey found that more than 90% of responding school food program directors either anticipate a financial loss (68%) or are uncertain about financial losses (23%).
Essential “Lunch Ladies”
The National Conference of State Legislatures provides insights on the essentiality of agriculture and foodservice sector workers. The federal government, with most states following suit, consider as essential workers who are engaged in animal and crop production, food product manufacture, support services provision (like food testing and inspecting), and restaurant and retail food sales operation. According to the federal government, while restaurant workers and corporate cafeteria food service workers are essential, school food service workers are not.
Nationally, in the spring and, now, during the summer, school food service workers have responded with great creativity and dedication to the interruption of normal school food service because of Covid-19. An April 5, 2020 “USA Today” article reads, “School cafeteria staff care deeply for the students they feed. ‘I lay awake at night trying to figure out how we can do more for our kids,’ wrote a worker from Kansas in a school meals Facebook group. For far too long, workers like her have not been recognized or adequately compensated for the vital role they play in feeding and caring for the nation’s children… The nation’s 420,000 cafeteria workers deserve to be able to support and protect themselves, and their families. during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.”
Before the pandemic, of the nation’s 420,000 school food service workers, Jennifer E. Gaddis, in her 2019 publication, “The Labor of Lunch,” wrote, “School cafeteria workers care for the nation’s children, yet they cannot afford to adequately care for themselves or their families on the paychecks they bring home. They face precarious employment conditions that demand self-sacrifice as an integral part of striving to care well for students. We cannot fix school lunch without fixing these jobs.”
What was true before the pandemic is truer now, during it. Gaddis notes that SNA “doesn’t publish detailed statistics on the demographics of the NSLP (National School Lunch Program) workforce. However, US Census data suggests that frontline cafeteria workers’ race and ethnicity largely mirror the population of the states where they live. My own anecdotal observations suggest that racial and ethnic minorities disproportionately clustered in the lowest rungs of the child nutrition profession.”
We know that Covid-19 is not an equal opportunity disease – rates of infection and fatality disproportionately skew towards black, Latin, and indigenous populations, including those in the frontlines of school lunches. The CDC provides that “A recent CDC MMWR report included race and ethnicity data from 580 patients hospitalized with lab-confirmed COVID-19 found that 45% of individuals for whom race or ethnicity data was available were white, compared to 59% of individuals in the surrounding community. However, 33% of hospitalized patients were black, compared to 18% in the community, and 8% were Hispanic, compared to 14% in the community. These data suggest an overrepresentation of blacks among hospitalized patients. Among COVID-19 deaths for which race and ethnicity data were available, New York City identified death rates among black/African American persons (92.3 deaths per 100,000 population) and Hispanic/Latino persons (74.3) that were substantially higher than that of white (45.2) or Asian (34.5) persons.”
The “USA Today” article continues, “We count on cafeteria workers to care for students…we shouldn’t ask them to sacrifice their own health and well-being to do so.” The risk of Covid-19 infection during the spring and summer, with cafeteria workers in schools and children out of schools, while significant, may well be greater when, come September, both groups are in schools.
Your Homework Assignment for School Food in the Fall
Spending for Covid-19 emergency meals by many school food programs has surpassed federal reimbursement. And states and municipalities suffering a massive decline in tax revenue because of the impact of Covid-19 on economic activity will be hard-pressed to make up shortfalls.
The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act passed in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives on May 15, 2020. The Act would provide $3 billion in emergency funding, which could help child nutrition programs cover costs associated with Covid-19 school closures. It would also designate school nutrition workers as “essential.”
However, the bill faces challenges in the Republican-controlled Senate. The Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell (R-KY), has characterized the House HEROES Act as “another big laundry list of pet priority” and “dead on arrival.”
We need the Senate to pass the HEROES Act to ensure that schools can continue providing meals to our children come September and that our school meal service workers can safely continue their heroic efforts. Both the Senate and House of Representatives will take a two-week Fourth of July break. It is expected that the Senate will not take up HEROES until their return on July 21. Once they are back in Washington, there is only a small window for action, as the Senate will recess again on August 8 and not return until mid-September, after schools are open.
Your Homework Assignment
Now is the time to contact both your U.S. Senators and tell them to support the HEROES Act. Send this message. (You can find their contact information here.)
Dear Senator [NAME],
I am a constituent and supporter of Slow Food USA, the national, not-for-profit organization dedicated to a food chain that is good, clean, and fair for all, especially our children during this pandemic.
The spring and summer semesters in our schools have been like no others. Our school food service workers have acted heroically to ensure that our school children, many from low-income and newly food-insecure households, have continued to benefit from school meals even though their schools are closed. The fall semester, when schools are open, will be an even greater challenge to school food workers adapting to accommodate radically changed school schedules and social distancing protocols while increasing their risk of Covid-19 infection. Tight budgets, owing to lost cafeteria revenues in the spring, Covid-19 related cost increases, and state and municipal tax revenue declines threaten school food services during the coming school year.
I urge you to support HEROES, the act that will provide $3 billion to help support school food services during the new school year and designate school food workers as essential, enabling jurisdictions to provide them with hazard pay and family support services.