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The Challenges of Feeding Hungry School Kids in a Time of Crisis

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The truth is, it's hard to feed kids on average days. From pandemics to natural disasters, a crisis only amplifies the challenges school food programs face regularly. The last couple of weeks have demonstrated this, as people and systems respond to COVID-19 and its many unprecedented challenges.

During this very real-time pandemic, school food has quickly found itself on the frontlines serving emergency meals. From policy to meal service, the school food system is quickly re-calibrating its infrastructure to feed the nation’s children. They are approaching rapid response at both the policy and meal distribution levels.

Making Meals Permissible

School food programming is a patchwork of policies. During the school year, it operates under the National School Lunch Program to serve breakfast and lunches. For after school activities, some schools offer supper under the Child and Adult Care Food Program. During the summer, it operates under the School Food Summer Program to provide meals at schools as well as off-school sites like recreation centers. Despite having to navigate these policies, the United States is one of the very few countries that operate federal school meal programming.

When school closures began, one of the earliest challenges was serving school food outside of schools. The solution to this was using the USDA's summer meal program to serve food. However, under regulations, those meals must be served in a group setting. Due to social distancing, group settings are considered a public health risk. Last week, the USDA announced some states receiving waivers to the "congregate feeding" requirements, which means meals do not have to be served in group settings.

Prepared breakfast and lunch meals waiting to be picked-up by buses for home deliveries in Swain County, North Carolina | Courtesy of Christine Tran
Prepared breakfast and lunch meals waiting to be picked-up by buses for home deliveries in Swain County, North Carolina

Another challenge was supporting free meal services to all kids. To qualify for free meals, students go through an eligibility process where schools are reimbursed at higher rates. At most, schools receive $2.20 for breakfast and $3.50 for lunch. At this moment in time, eligibility requirements don't make sense as many families are losing their incomes at an alarming rate due to business closures, direct layoffs, and now the "Safer at Home" orders. Families who may not have qualified before are currently experiencing economic hardships. Suspending all eligibility requirements can shift universal meal service to serve all kids. This became a reality on Wednesday when the U.S. Senate passed H.R. 6201 and the Families First Coronavirus Response Act into law. As part of its economic relief goals, it allows certain waivers to requirements for the school meal programs which gives the Secretary of Agriculture the authority to suspend all income eligibility and allow multiple meals to be served at one time so that some food operations can send kids home with more than one meal at a time.

Click left and right to see a few images from schools around the country 

Heroic lunch lady delivering food | Kacie Micken Schafer from Milroy, Minnesota
Heroic lunch lady delivering food | Kacie Micken Schafer from Milroy, Minnesota
School food service workers packing bags in the school kitchen for meal distribution | Cindy Watkins Hardin in Harrison County, Kentucky
School food service workers packing bags in the school kitchen for meal distribution | Cindy Watkins Hardin in Harrison County, Kentucky
School food service staff leaves students love notes and homework reminders | Leigh Ann Adams and Christina Jeannerett from Little Snake River Valley School in Baggs, Wyoming
School food service staff leaves students love notes and homework reminders | Leigh Ann Adams and Christina Jeannerett from Little Snake River Valley School in Baggs, Wyoming
Student acknowledges the hard work of lunch ladies with this sweet note | Shannon Silva from Moreno Valley, California
Student acknowledges the hard work of lunch ladies with this sweet note | Shannon Silva from Moreno Valley, California

With these new policy changes, school food programs can think outside of the cafeteria to better serve their communities. From “grab-n-go” to door-to-door deliveries, school food programs are coming up with creative approaches to serve meals. Some are able to provide fresh and non-perishable meals so that kids are set for a week. During uncertain times such as this, kids need as much support as possible. With all the worries facing families right now, their child’s next meal should not be one of them.

“It is important to build safety nets for all children, regardless of income, ethnic identity, or where they happen to live. One of the best safety nets for this solvable problem is school meals,” says Dr. Katie Wilson, Executive Director of the Urban School Food Alliance and former Deputy Under Secretary at the USDA.

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Feeding Kids By Any Means Necessary

The recent changes in policy support how resources get to school food programs in local communities. On any given weekday, nearly 51 million students ages 4 to 18 attend public school. Of this population, there are 31 million students who regularly eat school lunch — that's 3 out of 5 students. The sector that helps feed the nation's children is one of the most underappreciated workforces. Most school food service workers typically work hourly with few, if any, benefits. These positions are sometimes considered "gateway" jobs into an "employee-friendly" district system. Since they are usually the lowest paying, there is generally high turnover. Despite political discord, bureaucracy, and scrappy budgets, many unsung heroes manage to feed millions of kids every day. Now they are doing so during a public health crisis.

“It's not easy to turn school food on a dime, but I am once again amazed at how the mission to feed children drives our industry from frontline cafeteria workers to distribution and supply chain resources. The love and care is amazing!” says Kymm Mutch, a former school food service director, and current Vice President of ProTeam, a school nutrition consulting firm.

To leverage the resources unlocked by the policy changes, there are a number of other challenges to consider. To adequately feed kids in a time of crisis, we need to also:

School food service staff are feeding students with fun | Patty Brownfield Rice in Pendleton County, Kentucky
School food service staff are feeding students with fun | Patty Brownfield Rice in Pendleton County, Kentucky
  1. Understand program realities. On the finance side, school food programs often don't have very much money to work with. They operate as nonprofit entities and receive most of their money through meal reimbursements, which rarely covers the full cost of food, let alone staff. As a result, most programs find themselves in the red (or at a deficit), which typically eats into a school's general budget. On the labor side, many programs generally struggle to fill and retain positions. Given the crisis, more school food service workers are needed to prepare emergency meals at a much higher volume as well. Increasing school food program budgets is essential to attract and retain staff in this much-needed workforce, especially during this time of crisis.
     
  2. Re-think logistics. With the rise in processed foods over the past few decades, most school kitchens are only equipped to heat and serve already prepared foods. Access to full kitchens may be imperative to scratch cooking and preparing meals, particularly at higher volumes. Students who may not have needed school meals before may need them now. Collaborating with commercial kitchens in communities would support the preparation of different types of meals while optimizing resources in a time of scarcity. Resources sharing can also include transportation, warehouse facilities, and other logistical components to making and transporting meals.
     
  3. Engage the supply chain. School food programs order just enough to feed students. From fixed monthly lunch menus to calculating "average daily participation," school food service is very exact and precise. Whether programs contract with large food service companies and distributors or more localized food sources, this is a critical time for programs to engage with their suppliers and for suppliers to engage with producers. Small- and medium-sized farms are producing food but may have a hard time moving product. The federal government can purchase these foods directly and transform them into agricultural commodities by using their existing distribution networks. This is a critical time to strategize across the supply chain to inventory available food sources and discuss ways to transport vital goods as logistics are rapidly changing. For some regions, this may include identifying surplus produce as well as available facilities for food storage and prepping meals.

These are just some ways to support the school food workforce who already do what they do best every day: feed kids. “Cafeteria workers are taking on a personal health risk in order to feed ‘their kids’ at school, sometimes pushing their bodies to the limits in order to produce enough meals when short-staffed, yet they are rarely heralded for this heroic work,” says Dr. Jennifer Gaddis, professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of “The Labor of Lunch.” “We need to respect them and recognize their work as not only part of our social safety net, but also part of our public health infrastructure.”

Top Image: Healthy food | Anas Maarawi / Flickr (Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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