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Amid COVID-19, summer meals efforts innovate in the face of uncertainty

This story is a partnership between and Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity. Spotlight is a non-partisan initiative that gathers diverse perspectives to tell compelling stories illustrating the economic hardship confronting millions of Americans and to lift up genuine solutions.

With the traditional school calendar completed, school nutrition departments across the country have shifted their attention to providing summer meals, a continuation of ongoing efforts since mid-March to provide food to students while school buildings remain closed due to COVID-19. And while new flexibilities have ushered in innovative ways of feeding students amid a pandemic, school nutrition departments are facing unprecedented challenges and uncertainty.

What is clear is that the need is growing. After years of the number of hungry children in the United States decreasing, No Kid Hungry now predicts that one in four children could face hunger this year due to the coronavirus. That’s because the schools they relied on for meals have closed, along with the businesses their families may have relied on for income to afford food. All of this means there is increased demand on school nutrition programs as school districts across the country try to figure out how to get food to the students who need it most, while also balancing public health risks and budget constraints.

This is a national concern that hits even harder in states with high rates of food insecurity. North Carolina is just one of just 12 states in the country with a food insecurity rate higher than the national average, and districts there are working to find the flexibility and resources to meet a growing need.

In Wilson County, North Carolina, roughly 15 community sites and a handful of schools are offering summer meals from mid-June through early August, fewer sites than in previous summers.

“We cannot afford to keep operating the way that we were operating. Sometimes that means a change in staff, sometimes that means a change in menu, or a change in procedures,” said Mary-Catherine Talton, director of school nutrition for Wilson County Schools and legislative chair for the School Nutrition Association of North Carolina.

“Obviously we want to continue to feed our students, and we’re going to do that at the highest quality possible, but the budget is a real concern and staffing is a huge part of that.”

New flexibilities foster innovation

Historically, summer meals have fallen far short of the need. Nationally, they reached just 1 in 7 of the low-income students who participated in school lunch during the 2017-18 school year. But new flexibilities made necessary by the pandemic mean that this summer’s feeding programs will look different than ever before — and, perhaps, reach more students than ever before.

Since mid-March, numerous federal waivers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have removed regulations that normally restrict how summer meals are offered. One waives the requirement that summer meals are eaten in a congregate setting, as that poses a public health risk. Another allows parents to pick up meals without students being present. On June 10, the USDA announced the extension of a waiver that allows all students to receive free summer meals, whereas summer meals sites were previously limited to low-income areas.

Additionally, an executive order from North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) and a state general statute have permitted the use of yellow school buses to transport school meals — an approach that addresses one of the biggest barriers to serving meals during previous summers: transportation. While at least one North Carolina district had experimented with using buses to deliver meals in the past, the practice was not standard. Instead, students would have to arrive at a designated site, like a community park, church, or school, to receive meals.

Meals are distributed from a yellow school bus in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools. Courtesy of Tom Simon

In Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, school buses began delivering free meals the first day that schools were closed due to COVID-19. The meals are prepared at two elementary schools and distributed to 37 sites across the district four days of the week, with additional meals for Friday and the weekend provided on Thursdays. According to district officials, roughly 1,400 students are being served each day.

“Over the past 12 weeks, it’s been a pretty big learning curve. But what has been amazing is that since day one, there’s been a commitment to make sure that these students continue to get fed,” said Christine Cotton, a contract project manager with the district.

Cotton credits teamwork and flexibility for the district’s success in continuing to serve meals even in the face of challenges. When a few transportation employees tested positive for COVID-19, the district suspended the use of buses for two weeks to stop the spread of the virus.

“As a result, we had to switch gears and go from using transportation, or using the buses, to counting on our volunteers,” said Brad Johnson, transportation director for the district. 

Julie Hennis, coordinator for volunteers and partners for the district, said they worked quickly to mobilize volunteers from various community organizations and faith-based groups. In the absence of buses, volunteers transported food from school cafeterias to the sites and assisted in distributing food to families. Because of those efforts, meal service was never interrupted.

Loree Perry, a school nutrition employee with the district, has been running one of the meal sites since it first opened in mid-March. She said many students and families don’t have the financial resources or ability to leave their homes due to COVID-19, so her team is coming to them instead. Perry described some volunteers even taking carts to bring the meals door-to-door around apartment complexes for children who can’t go outside to meet the school bus.

“It’s vitally important that we continue to go to as many apartment complexes and as many community housing units as we can to make sure that these kids are still eating,” said Perry. “Chapel Hill tends to be known as an affluent town, but there’s just as many kids that go without.”

An unprecedented situation and uncertain future

But even with new practices and flexibility, North Carolina and other states will struggle to meet an ever-expanding need. During a presentation to the education working group of the House Select Committee on COVID-19 in May, Lynn Harvey, chief of child nutrition for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, said that almost 60% of the state’s public school students — about 826,000 — qualify for free- or reduced-price meals, and 27.6% of students struggle with hunger. 

That is data from before the pandemic hit. Since March 15, more than 1 million North Carolinians have filed unemployment claims. In April, the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina recorded the largest single-month food distribution in its 40-year history at 7.68 million pounds of food. The demand for school meals has similarly increased and is paired with new challenges resulting from the pandemic, including budget constraints and staff burnout.

Meals are picked up from a site in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools. Courtesy of Tom Simon

In North Carolina, many aspects of K-12 education are funded in advance based on per-pupil allotments. For example, districts receive money for a certain amount of teachers based on the number of students in the district. However, school nutrition departments do not receive those funds — instead, they generate revenue solely based on student meal payments, supplemental sales of a la carte items, and federal reimbursements from the USDA. COVID-19 all but eliminated the first two of those income streams, and federal reimbursements have decreased for districts that are serving fewer meals than they were before the pandemic.

According to Harvey’s presentation, COVID-19 caused the number of reimbursable meals served statewide to fall from roughly 1.2 million per day to 500,000 per day.  The result was an estimated school nutrition shortfall of $7.6 million per week — $4.4 million of which is due to a reduction in reimbursable meals, and $3.2 million of which is due to a loss of local funds from paid meals.

“We have to generate everything that we are given. And it’s hard to do that when … our ability to generate those funds has basically had the legs taken out from under it. Yet the expenses that we budgeted for are still very real,” said Talton.

In a recent survey by North Carolina’s Department of Public Instruction, 80% of school food authorities indicated that they plan to continue serving meals throughout the summer in some capacity — but that capacity varies depending on things like budget and staffing considerations.

Liz Cartano, Chartwells director of dining for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, said budget considerations have become “somewhat of a numbers game.” Her team is working to get the highest number of meals out to students in the most efficient manner possible.

“You will need to be flexible and operate in a way that we would not normally do. Since there are USDA waivers in place, we can deliver more than one meal at a time. This is a great way to get meals to the students for the weekend with limiting the amount of expenses that you have,” said Cartano in an email. “You have got to find ways to keep the USDA reimbursement at a sustainable level. Offset some labor with volunteers and maximize the number of meals you have going out.”

Child nutrition staff, some of whom have been working without breaks since emergency feeding efforts began in mid-March, are also under new pressures. While a significant number of staff have taken emergency leave, those who kept working put themselves on the front lines of the pandemic and were at a greater risk of contracting COVID-19. While 75 school districts in North Carolina offered pay incentives, the other 40 did not. In Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, Cartano has roughly 20 employees who have committed to supporting the program through August and is back-filling her staffing needs with volunteers.

One potential sign of relief came in early May when House Bill 1043 allocated $75 million from the federal CARES Act to the Department of Public Instruction for school nutrition services. However, the funds have largely yet to be expended. On a webinar in early June, Harvey said that is due to the fact that federal funds come with very specific usage requirements and that questions on allowable uses of the funds have yet to be answered by the Office of State Budget and Management.

“There are some very critical questions that have to be answered before we can in good conscience tell you to use these funds, because if they are used for unallowable purposes, they are subject to reclaim,” Harvey said.

Looking ahead, the beginning of school in the fall ushers in additional uncertainty. If students return to school buildings, will meals be served in the cafeteria, in classrooms, or elsewhere? Will schools see a decrease in the number of students eating reimbursable school meals or purchasing a la carte items? Will more students qualify for free- and reduced-price meals? 

“The truth is … in order to meet the demands that our school students will need when we return in the fall … whatever that may look like, it actually may require an increase in staffing while it’s providing a decrease in revenue,” said Talton.

In June, the state Department of Public Instruction released a guidance document with three potential scenarios for reopening schools in the fall, including what child nutrition services may look like. Julie Pittman, education outreach manager for No Kid Hungry and a member of the operations work group of the Schools Reopening Task Force, said plans may look different district to district or even school to school.

“We were grateful to have many child nutrition directors weigh in on the needs of child nutrition going forward, because we all recognize that schools and school systems are best equipped to feed kids throughout the crises, throughout the summer, and into the fall,” Pittman said.

“There are so many kids — and that number is growing week by week — who are in our most vulnerable population. And child nutrition directors are going to be able to work with their school leadership to develop the best plan for feeding the most kids based on the needs of their communities.”

Analisa Sorrells

Analisa Sorrells is a Master in Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School and previously worked as chief of staff and associate director of policy for EducationNC.