School staff navigating a complex reopening process this fall have a lot on their plates—literally.
School meals have long been a bedrock for low-income and food insecure communities, but new research shows that food insecurity has climbed significantly since the beginning of the pandemic, leading many families to rely more heavily on free meals, snacks and groceries provided by their local public schools.
In many places, meeting the needs of these families during the pandemic has only been possible through aggressive—and temporary—federal financial support. Now, as educators scope out a future of ongoing economic recovery, many are hoping the federal government, or states and localities in its place, make these policies permanent. Without them, districts face big budget challenges, and a potential boom in privatization.
“If we find a way to continue the provision of meals on a universal free basis, that will make a big difference to children,” says education sociologist Jan Poppendieck. “And it makes a difference to their families as well.”
According to findings from the Food Research and Action Center, from 2019 to 2020 about 3 million more people in the U.S. were living in households with low food security. Additionally, the Columbia Center on Poverty and Social Policy calculated that without COVID-19 relief, the national poverty rate could be 4.5 percent higher than it is now.
As part of its response to the pandemic, the US Department of Agriculture reimbursed meals for all students regardless of their family’s income—at least until the end of the 2021-2022 school year.
Research from the Department also shows that food-insecure and marginally food-secure households are more likely to eat school meals and receive more of their nutrient intake from school meals than other children. This service is especially critical because these meals tend to be the most nutritious food many low-income students eat, says Liz Accles, the executive director of Community Food Advocates in New York City.
“For so many school districts [this year] we have seen how important free school meals for all children are,” she says.
Where Federal Funds Make a Difference
For the San Francisco Unified School District, Jennifer LeBarre, the executive director of student nutrition services, says her staff is providing many more meals to students. In high schools that traditionally served 500 lunches a day, for example, they’re now providing twice that number.
Her district not only serves breakfasts and lunches but has also initiated a universal dinner program, supported by federal funds through the Child and Adult Care Food Program. Federal funding for universal meals has been a gamechanger for the district because, prior to the pandemic, dinner services were only reimbursed for districts in which 50 percent or more of students received free or reduced lunch—a service extended to children in household incomes within 185 percent of the federal poverty level.
That has an outsize effect on districts like SFUSD, she says, because the high cost of living in the region means students who have significant food needs but don’t fit within federal standards can fall through the cracks.
“When you’re looking at the criteria of 50 percent or more free and reduced, a lot of our schools are losing that criteria just because we have a higher cost of living. An area like San Francisco in a state like California…has the same criteria as 48 contiguous states,” LeBarre says.
Houston Independent School District has also felt the impact of current school reimbursements from the federal government, says Betti Wiggins, the district’s nutrition services officer. She notes that while pre-pandemic reimbursements covering children in poverty were helpful, it has always been difficult to balance her budget. A 2019 report from the US Department of Agriculture shows that the average federal reimbursement rate per lunch was almost 50 cents less than the average cost to produce that meal.
“I do about 200,000 meals a day. And a vendor went up three dollars a case on me,” she says. “I still have to get a product that the kids need.”
There’s also an administrative cost districts must pay to process reimbursement applications sent to the federal government—and those fees add up quickly. Permanent universal school meal coverage would erase them, advocates say. To Wiggins, this universal federal support “should be a given.”
This year California and Maine announced plans to institute state-wide universal school meals. New York City began a universal school lunch beginning in the 2017-18 school year. Research in that city suggests that students did better academically and experienced less bullying in schools with universal meals.
Although a federal policy would be the most profound change to student hunger across the country, there may be greater momentum for more aggressive school meal support on a local level. The temporary financial support districts currently enjoy—and the free meals it affords—is a powerful argument in favor of keeping these meal policies over the long term, says Poppendieck.
Providing universal school meals “really seemed like pie in the sky,” she says of the time before the pandemic. “Having it as a reality has motivated [district leaders]—they’ve got it and they want to try to keep it.”
Private Management of School Food Services
Alleviating the financial strain on school districts could also affect another major issue in school food: privatization.
Many school districts outsource the management of their food production and distribution to private catering companies, including big name companies like Aramark and Sodexo. Utilizing cheaper ingredients, minimizing labor costs and relying on efficient institutional organization, these companies are often able to save money for districts, says Poppendieck. At times, she notes, contracting with these organizations has been seen as a way to avoid unionization in school cafeterias.
These companies typically make annual contracts with districts, and don’t profit from individual meals sold, she notes. But without federal economic support that would ease the pressure on district budgets, the result could be higher rates of this privatized management, as school food scholar and activist Jennifer Gaddis argued in an op-ed last year.
There is already at least some evidence that catering company Sodexo, is expecting significant profits this fall, as schools reopen.
“These are corporations that have vast experience in successful food service management. They run restaurants and cafeterias in hotels and shopping centers,” she says. “It is a whole evolution of a mindset towards [school] food service as a business.”