California’s Education Department had asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow the parents or legal guardians of children eligible for free school meals to pick up meals for themselves.
The USDA denied that request last week, saying the department does not have the authority to reimburse school districts for meals distributed to adults through the summer meals program. The USDA directs inquiries to its Summer Food Service Program’s frequently asked questions.
Before the pandemic, on a regular school day, about 22 million students in the country received free or reduced-priced meals, in some districts for three meals each school day. Were school in session now, many more kids would have become eligible because of their parents’ lost jobs.
School nutrition programs are set up by Congress to provide meals to students during the school year and then throughout the summer in certain low-income districts, said Katie Wilson, executive director of the Urban School Food Alliance, a coalition of the largest school districts in the United States. But the meals are for students up to age 18 only.
When adults eat school meals during the normal school year, they must pay full price for that meal. Wilson said it would take an act of Congress to change that.
Congress did allow the USDA to increase its funding for school meal programs but did not give it the authority to reimburse for adult meals.
Jessica Bartholow, a policy advocate at the Western Center on Law and Poverty, said when schools are open, they serve more families and different families than the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, widely known as food stamps.
When schools are on summer break and families continue to go to school for grab-and-go meals, “it’s … because they really need to,” Bartholow said. “What we know is people will do anything to prevent their kids from going hungry, including forgoing food themselves. When parents are hungry, those kids aren’t better off.”
She said school closures have required that parents become teachers, janitors and yard duty monitors, all in the context of deteriorating income and heightened fear and often in households containing multiple generations. She said the school lunch program is a distribution chain that already works, has existing kitchen infrastructure and employs a large number of workers, many of them women of color, a demographic that has been hit especially hard by unemployment related to the coronavirus pandemic.
Even without USDA backing, Bartholow said, some school districts are feeding the parents and families of schoolchildren.
“In Los Angeles, we’re already doing it. We might not get reimbursed, but it’s the right thing to do,” she said.
Crystal FitzSimons, the director of school programs at the Food Research and Action Center, said school districts in Massachusetts, Michigan and New York City also are providing meals to adults and assuming the cost, “really stepping up to the plate to support the families they serve.”
She said within the school lunch act, the USDA is prohibited from issuing waivers that increase the cost to the program. However, she said, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act does contain language about increasing costs to the program.
“Families are coming out, picking up meals, identifying themselves as being in need,” FitzSimons said. “We are in a huge hunger crisis right now, and we need to be leveraging every single tool. This is an important creative approach to support families.”
She said districts shouldering the financial burden of feeding families without federal reimbursement will probably need help in the fall.
Access and reach vary by school district, with some schools offering five days’ worth of food at a time and others replicating bus routes to deliver food boxes to neighborhoods with the highest need.
Last year, school nutrition programs served more than 2.5 billion meals and snacks from March to June, receiving more than $5 billion in reimbursement from the USDA. Now, according to early reports, programs are serving only a fraction of those meals, forcing them to tap into fund balances and draw upon lines of credit to sustain their operations.
“The rule in the school meal program is they have to reconcile the cost at the end of the year,” Bartholow said. “Usually they have really high participation rates to be able to purchase in bulk and get reimbursed. The more people you can serve and get reimbursed, the better you are. This has been a significant hit to the budget of the schools.”
By law, the summer meals programs operate as “congregate feeding models,” meaning kids must gather to eat in a group. This poses safety and health concerns for children, families, and the staff members and volunteers who work these programs. The USDA has issued waivers to school districts for summer meal programs, which have helped schools and groups operate programs in ways that work best in the current environment (such as grab-and-go meals and contactless delivery).
Lisa Davis, senior vice president of Share Our Strength, said these waivers will expire at the end of June. She is calling on the USDA to extend all nationwide child nutrition waivers through Sept. 30. Without them, she said, many schools and community organizations will not be able to reach children during the summer. Because of the pandemic, many of the usual places to reach children — summer school, day camps, library programs — won’t be operating.
Nancy Roman, president of Partnership for a Healthier America, said the government should be thinking about every tool in its arsenal.
“If ever there was a time, now is the time.”