Widespread school closures mean 30 million kids might go without meals

A student leaves the Thurgood Marshal Elementary school after all Seattle Public Schools were abruptly closed due to coronavirus fears on March 11, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. Schools will be closed for a minimum of two weeks. The system is the largest public school district in Washington State.
John Moore/Getty Images

Schools across the country have begun to cancel classes among growing coronavirus fears. 

According to Education Week, as of Friday, March 13, at least 46,000 schools in the U.S. are closed, are scheduled to close or were closed and later reopened, affecting at least 21 million students. 

While experts agree that school closures will play an important role in limiting the transmission of coronavirus, families and advocates have concerns about how system-wide closures will impact communities who rely on schools for a range of public services, including providing low-income children with breakfast and lunch. 

Each day, the National School Lunch Program serves over 30 million children, the School Breakfast Program serves over 14.7 million children and the Child and Adult Care Food Program serves over 6.1 million children.

Amidst school closures, many fear that millions of these students will go hungry. 

Currently, whether or not students still have access to food programs "really varies depending on location and school districts," Kristina Ishmael, senior project manager for the education policy program at New America, tells CNBC Make It. "And it is imperative that we continue to feed our students."

"We haven't received any information"

As schools close, local groups are stepping in to fill community needs. But they aren't always getting clear guidance from local governments on how best to help.

Soulful Synergy is working alongside the Westchester Community Opportunity Program to provide meals for families while schools are closed in New Rochelle, New York, a so-called "hot spot" for coronavirus in the state. 

Soulful Synergy, a self-described "for-profit social enterprise," usually focuses on services like vocational training and helping small businesses get necessary certifications, but as schools began to close they realized there was an immediate need to help low-income students and their families. They are providing bags of food as well as breakfast and lunch to families whose children receive lunch assistance — that's about 4,000 meals per day. The bag contains non-perishable items like canned goods and pancake mix. The organization is also giving out free books.

"Students are not at school, and they're not going to be receiving their food there, so we want to make sure that the community is fed, healthy and able to deal with the coronavirus that we're currently having here," Alejandro Alvarez, executive director and co-founder of Soulful Synergy, tells CNBC Make It. He adds that despite communication with Homeland Security and the local police department, his organization had not yet been given any official guidance as to how food assistance programs are going to be implemented going forward. Some school districts have chosen to continue food programs in schools, while others have not. 

"We haven't received any information of even what's happening tomorrow or the next day, so as of right now, our main focus is to make to sure that the food that comes into us, we're able to get into the homes that most need it," says Alvarez.

Cafeterias and congregate feeding sites

"One of my biggest fears is that as systems are closed and schools are disrupted, that creates a disproportionate burden on families who are most vulnerable: workers who depend on shifts, workers who live for each paycheck," says Kristin Richmond, CEO and co-founder of Revolution Foods, a company that provides and distributes over 2 million meals per week to public school students in 400 U.S. cities. "It's all one circle because these are the parents of the kids that we're serving in schools."

Richmond says roughly 75% of the students they serve qualify for a free and reduced lunch program and her organization plans to continue providing meals for students in need.

The USDA is still in the process of approving and implementing a waiver system that will allow schools to serve meals subsidized by the federal government to at-risk children during school closures, Ricmond says. And some schools will be allowed to keep just their cafeterias open while the rest of the school is closed. "In some cases, if sites are completely closed, there will be what's called 'congregate feeding sites.'"

In the past, Revolution Foods has partnered with the Department of Parks and Recreation, community centers, churches and libraries to create congregate feeding sites during the summer. 

For now, she says organizations like hers will be doing everything in their power to make sure students are fed. 

"If you are a school or a program that already provides a reimbursable service to a population of kids or families, you will be able to continue that offering through USDA and then state provisions," she stresses. 

Arcadia Elementary School students eat lunch on November 18, 2016 in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Many families in the Kalamazoo Public Schools participate in the National School Lunch Program, offering free or discounted lunches for low-income students.
Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

Case-by-case exceptions

Currently, approval for closed schools to continue meal services is being handled on a case-by-case basis.

On March 6, the USDA approved a request from Washington State to allow meal service during school closures and on March 7, the department did the same for California.

"During an unexpected school closure, schools can leverage their participation in one of USDA's summer meal programs to provide meals at no cost to students. Under normal circumstances, those meals must be served in a group setting. However, in a public health emergency, the law allows USDA the authority to waive the group setting meal requirement, which is vital during a social distancing situation," reads a March 10 announcement from the USDA. "As always, states may request waivers of other program requirements, as needed, and those will be considered on a case-by-case basis."

"If schools are closed, we are going to do our very best to make sure kids are fed," said Sonny Perdue, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture at a conference that day.

Since then, select school systems have made commitments to continue food services while closed, such as the Los Angeles Unified School District and the San Diego Unified School District. The two districts serve more than 750,000 students combined and will be closed as of March 16. 

"Later today, we will be providing students, parents and staff with more information on our plans to continue providing learning opportunities for students during the closure," reads a joint statement from Superintendent Austin Beutner of LA and Superintendent Cindy Marten of San Diego which was sent to CNBC Make It. "We have also directed staff at both districts to prepare to continue providing nutrition and other supports through family resource facilities."

In Seattle, schools have embraced drive-through food programs where families can pick up meals without leaving their cars. 

Joel Berg, CEO of the non-profit Hunger Free America, is skeptical that these programs will go far enough. He hopes that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (previously referred to as "food stamps") gets additional funding, particularly in light of the Trump Administration's decision to limit eligibility and cut nearly 700,000 people from the program.

On March 13, the House sent a coronavirus relief bill to the Senate, which includes increased funding for SNAP. 

"I hope even without congressional action, cooler heads will prevail and be able to say, 'You know, we may disagree over long-term ideology, but for goodness sake in a crisis like this, just get the people food," Berg says.

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