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

By Corey Mitchell — March 20, 2020 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.

Commenting has been disabled on effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Evaluating Equity to Drive District-Wide Action this School Year
Educational leaders are charged with ensuring all students receive equitable access to a high-quality education. Yet equity is more than an action. It is a lens through which we continuously review instructional practices and student
Content provided by BetterLesson

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP