Student Well-Being

Students Are Going Hungry, Cafeteria Staffing Is a Mess. Here’s Why

By Mark Lieberman — September 28, 2021 4 min read
Stacked Red Cafeteria trays in a nearly empty lunch room.
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Pandemic-related supply-chain and labor challenges are causing major headaches in K-12 cafeterias across the country, in some cases, leading students to go hungry and schools to contemplate a dreaded return to fully remote learning.

Administrators at Mitchell Elementary School in Philadelphia scrambled to order pizza, water, and juice to feed 400 students after food deliveries fell through and cafeteria staff weren’t available one day last week, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. Some of the pizzas never arrived. This wasn’t the first time this school year that the students went hungry, and the school wasn’t the only one in the area where students have gone hungry this school year, the Inquirer reported.

The Dothan City district in Alabama warned parents last week to brace for the possibility of remote learning “a few days out of the week to alleviate the stress on our food supplies.” The district is also urging parents to pack lunch for their children if they can. This week, New Visions Charter High School in Brooklyn, N.Y. suspended all school lunches through Oct. 15, citing staff shortages.

COVID-19 is obstructing the school meal process at every stage, according to local media reports. In schools themselves, cafeteria workers are regularly out sick or forced to stay home to quarantine after exposure to the virus. Delivery truck companies are struggling to find workers to shuttle food and cafeteria supplies, such as gloves and cutlery, to school buildings. Factories are streamlining their production processes to account for diminished staffing, causing shortages and price hikes for key ingredients that schools need in bulk, including dairy, whole grains, vegetables, and meat.

The result is smaller menus and fewer food options for students, heightened chaos and turmoil behind the scenes in cafeterias, and distress and anxiety among school finance officials.

These disruptions come amid broader staffing shortage woes in schools nationwide. Bus drivers, substitute teachers, paraprofessionals, instructional aides, and other low-wage workers are difficult to come by. These jobs historically offer minimal pay and benefits, leaving workers particularly skittish amid COVID-19 dangers and frustration with pandemic protocols or lack thereof.

Policies are evolving as challenges persist

Throughout the pandemic, the federal government has given schools flexibility to offer free meals to all students and loosened regulations that dictate what meals must look like and how they must be delivered. This school year, more than 95 percent of school lunches have been free for students, compared with slightly less than 70 percent in the months prior to the start of the pandemic in March 2020, according to federal data.

On Sept. 15, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers school breakfast and lunch programs nationwide, granted schools a new waiver from being financially punished for failing to meet federal nutrition guidelines. The waiver extends through June 30, 2022 and protects school districts from failing to receive federal reimbursements for meals that don’t meet nutrition standards.

“The newest waiver is a big help, and USDA has been very responsive,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations for the School Nutrition Association, which represents food workers in U.S. schools. “We continue to hold weekly calls to keep them updated on continued challenges as the supply chain situation evolves.”

Advocates for school nutrition workers and students are pushing for more, including temporary relaxed policies on training for cafeteria staff, state monitoring of meal programs, and requirements to purchase goods from American companies.

See Also

Food service assistant Brenda Bartee, rear, gives students breakfast, Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021, during the first day of school at Washington Elementary School in Riviera Beach, Fla.
Food service assistant Brenda Bartee, rear, gives students breakfast, last month on the first day of school at Washington Elementary School in Riviera Beach, Fla.
Wilfredo Lee/AP

To account for rising costs of food and cooking materials, the department is also reimbursing school districts for the cost of school meals at a higher rate than usual. For most schools outside of Alaska and Hawaii, the federal government this school year will provide roughly $4.25 per free lunch and $2.42 per free breakfast, compared with the typical $3.66 per free lunch, and $1.97 per free breakfast.

Roughly 30 percent of school districts that responded this summer to a nationwide survey by the School Nutrition Association reported dipping into their general funds to cover costs of school meals that exceed the federal government’s reimbursement offering. Nearly half of respondents said they expect a loss of federal revenue for school meals delivered this school year. Of those, only a third said they’re confident they have enough money in reserve to cover those costs.

The School Nutrition Association is advocating for even higher reimbursement values, according to its Aug. 23 letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

“While SNA greatly appreciates USDA’s decision to provide a higher reimbursement rate for SY 2021-22, [school food authorities] need additional emergency funding support,” the letter reads.


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