When COVID-19 shut down schools in South Carolina, the Charleston County School District set up drive-through pick up and bus delivery of school meals in less than 48 hours.
“We kept adding bus routes and looking for ways to reach families,” said Walter Campbell, Executive Director of Nutrition Services for Charleston. “No matter what people needed we would take care of it.”
Nationwide, more than 13 million children face food insecurity, meaning they don’t consistently have enough food to eat. For these kids and their families, school meals are often the difference between having enough to eat or going hungry. The pandemic highlighted how critically important school meals are for preventing hunger and food insecurity in America, especially for families furthest from economic opportunity.
Yet school nutrition programs are often understaffed, underfunded and overlooked. These programs have faced significant financial losses during the pandemic. According to USDA data, school food service departments reported more than $2 billion in federal revenue losses from March to November 2020.
To address the added challenges of the pandemic, USDA used new authority from Congress to issue waivers that permitted schools nationwide to serve meals to all students free of charge (also known as universal school meals). Universal school meals have been key to supporting nutrition service directors’ efforts to feed children facing food insecurity.
However, universal school meals will expire on June 30, 2022.
Campbell serves breakfast to more than 16,000 students and lunches to more than 30,000. He said that if free school meals end, there could be a devastating rise in school lunch debt.
Kimberly Meeks, Student Nutrition Director of Roswell Independent School District in New Mexico, has similar concerns. “We don’t turn kids away. We’ll feed them no matter what, but if free meals end the debts will increase greatly,” she said.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Roswell Independent School District saw a sharp drop in school meals participation due to school closures. Nearly two years later, with students in school and numbers almost back to normal, the district faces a new challenge: supply chain issues.
Across the country, school nutrition programs are scrambling to fill in gaps when they don’t receive the food they order. Many have been forced to find new vendors when orders are canceled or delayed, and even make trips to local stores to purchase necessary food and supplies. A national survey from December 2021 reveals 97% of school meal program directors are challenged by rising costs due to supply chain issues.
Meeks said she struggles to get the products she needs to feed her students. One week she ordered 100 cases of chicken nuggets, but ended up receiving only 30. She has to tackle new challenges each week to ensure the meals have enough nutrients, including protein and the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables.
A new report by Healthy Eating Research examines how school food service authorities (SFAs), which are responsible for planning, sourcing, preparing, and serving school meals, tackled the challenge of providing school meals during the pandemic.
According to the brief, SFA’s work can be supported by:
- Making universal school meals permanent
- Strengthening communication between school food directors and other community organizations such as food banks and local farms
- Developing a funding plan for school nutrition programs that does not rely solely on revenue from students purchasing meals
- Establishing a comprehensive disaster plan for future emergencies
Healthy Eating Research’s report also underscores the passion that school food service directors and their teams have for their work. Directors and staff worked overtime to ensure students were fed and receiving nutritious foods, which was essential for preventing hunger and supporting families in need throughout the pandemic.
Campbell calls his nutrition team “superheroes.” “We never say ‘we can’t do that.’ If a student is in need, we will find a way to reach them and feed them. ”
The Six-Ingredient Recipe for Universal School Meals: Lessons from California
California passed its own school meals for all plan, followed by Maine, and campaigns are also underway in Massachusetts, Minnesota, Vermont, Wisconsin, and other states. This story shares six key ingredients to California’s success, which may guide other advocates and policymakers in providing free, healthy school meals for all students, no matter where they live.
School Meals and Snacks
Many children consume up to half their daily calories at school. Nationwide more than 29 million children participate in the National School Lunch Program and nearly 15 million participate in the School Breakfast Program.