Districts want to make school meals free forever. But they need help paying for it.

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School staff who are going through a complex reopening process have a lot on their plate here, literally.

School meals have long been a foundation for low-income, food-insecure communities, but new research shows that food insecurity has increased significantly since the start of the pandemic, leading many families to rely more on free meals, snacks and groceries provided by local public schools.

In many places, meeting the needs of these families during the pandemic was only possible through aggressive and temporary federal financial support. Now, as educators explore an ongoing economic recovery future, many are hoping the federal government, or the states and localities in its stead, will make these policies permanent. Without them, districts face major budget challenges and a potential privatization boom.

“If we find a way to continue providing meals on a free universal basis, it will make a big difference for the children,” says education sociologist Jan Poppendieck. “And it also makes a difference for their families.”

According to results from the Food Research and Action Center, about 3 million more people in the United States lived in families with poor food security from 2019 to 2020. Furthermore, the Columbia Center on Poverty and Social Policy has calculated that without COVID-19 aid, the national poverty rate could be 4.5% more than it is now.

As part of its response to the pandemic, the United States Department of Agriculture meals reimbursed for all students regardless of family income, at least until the end of the 2021-2022 school year.

Department research It also shows that food-insecure and marginally food-safe families are more likely to eat school meals and receive more nutrients from school meals than other children. This service is especially important because these meals tend to be the most nutritious food many low-income students eat, says Liz Accles, 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 are for all children, “he says.

Where federal funds make a difference

For the San Francisco Unified School District, Jennifer LeBarre, executive director of student nutrition services, says her staff are providing far more meals to students. In high schools that traditionally served 500 lunches a day, for example, they now provide twice as much.

His district not only serves breakfasts and lunches, but has also started a universal dinner program, supported by federal funds through the Child and Adult Care Food Program. Federal funding for universal meals was a game changer for the district because, prior to the pandemic, dinner services were reimbursed only for districts where 50% or more of students received free or reduced lunch, a service extended to children with household incomes within 185 percent of the federal poverty level.

This has a huge effect on districts like SFUSD, he says, because the high cost of living in the region means students who have significant food needs but don’t fit federal standards can fail.

“When you look at the free and reduced 50 percent or more criteria, many of our schools are missing out on those 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, ”says LeBarre.

The Houston Independent School District has also suffered from the impact of current federal government school reimbursements, says Betti Wiggins, the district’s head of nutrition services. She notes that while pre-pandemic reimbursements covering children in poverty have been helpful, it has always been difficult to balance her budget. A 2019 report from the United States Department of Agriculture shows that the federal median reimbursement rate for lunch was nearly 50 cents lower than the median cost of producing that meal.

“I make about 200,000 meals a day. And a salesman paid me three dollars at random, “he says.” I still have to get a product that the kids need. “

There is also an administrative fee that districts must pay to process claims submitted to the federal government – and these fees add up quickly. Permanent coverage of the universal school meal would cancel them out, advocates say. For Wiggins, this universal federal support “should be a fact”.

This year California Other Maine announced plans to establish statewide universal school meals. New York City began a universal school lunch starting in the 2017-18 school year. Research in that city suggests that the students did better academically Other experienced less bullying in schools with universal meals.

While a federal policy would represent the most profound change for student hunger across the country, there may be more momentum for more aggressive support for the school canteen at the local level. The temporary financial support that districts currently enjoy – and the free meals it offers – is a powerful argument for maintaining these long-term meal policies, Poppendieck says.

Providing universal school meals “really felt like pie in the sky,” he says of the time before the pandemic. “Having it as a reality motivated [district leaders]- They have it and they want to try to keep it. ”

Private management of school catering services

Relieving financial pressure on school districts could also impact another major problem in school nutrition: privatization.

Many school districts outsource their food production and distribution to private catering companies, including big name companies like Aramark and Sodexo. By using cheaper ingredients, minimizing labor costs, and relying on an efficient institutional organization, these companies are often able to save money for the districts, says Poppendieck. Sometimes, he notes, contracts with these organizations have been seen as a way to avoid unionization in school canteens.

These companies typically enter into annual contracts with the districts and do not profit from individual meals sold, he notes. But without federal economic support that would ease the pressure on district budgets, the result could be an increase in the rates of this privatized management, as school food scholar and activist Jennifer Gaddis argued in a report. editorial last year.

There is already at least some evidence that the Sodexo catering company expects significant profits this fall, as schools reopen.

“These are companies that have extensive experience in managing successful restaurant services. They run restaurants and cafes in hotels and shopping malls, “he says.” It’s a whole evolution of a mindset towards [school] catering as a business. “

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