05/12/2020 - As the nation grapples with the impact of COVID-19 disruptions, school nutrition professionals – including many Academy members – are on the frontlines to ensure children have access to healthy food during school closures. These programs chose to keep workers employed and deliver meals to students with no additional reimbursement, thereby exposing staff to the coronavirus with little to no funding for proper personal protective equipment. Many maintained fixed expenses, such as salaries, while taking on unanticipated expenses such as hazard pay and transportation.
Federal child nutrition programs are an essential food safety net that ensures children have access to healthy food – a need that has been amplified in the wake of the COVID-19 national emergency. Millions of individuals have applied for unemployment in the last few weeks and more children will rely on free and reduced priced meals in the fall. It is imperative that school nutrition programs be financially prepared to take on this challenge.
School nutrition programs rely on reimbursement from meal service to pay for expenses. Last year between the months of March and June, programs served more than 2.5 billion meals and snacks, receiving over $5 billion in reimbursement. According to early reports during the same time frame and amidst the COVID pandemic, programs are now serving just a fraction of those meals; this unanticipated loss of revenue has forced programs to tap into fund balances and draw upon lines of credit to sustain operations.
The FEED the Children Act, introduced today by Rep. Alma Adams (N.C.), provides critical support to help mitigate unanticipated financial costs and decreased revenue that school nutrition programs have incurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. The funding will be distributed first to states and then to school food authorities based on a formula which takes into account the typical level of reimbursement a program would receive for meals and supplies. It is critical to support these federal school nutrition programs while protecting jobs and limited education resources.
The Academy is specifically concerned at how the pandemic has disproportionately impacted minority communities who are at greater risk for diet-related diseases. "The FEED the Children Act is an important piece of legislation that addresses the health disparities of minority communities during the COVID-19 pandemic," said registered dietitian nutritionist Kristen Gradney, a national Spokesperson for the Academy.
As the country begins the recovery process, it is essential that federal funding be provided to keep school nutrition programs financially solvent and to maintain the integrity of essential food security programs, especially given the anticipated increase in the number of families that will rely on school meal programs. In addition, many schools will face resource challenges as they strive to provide meals while simultaneously minimizing risk of COVID exposure for students through social distancing and alternate delivery and service protocols.
"By ensuring that schools are prepared to serve students in the fall, we are making certain that students will have reliable access to healthful meals," Gradney added.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has been a strong supporter of child nutrition programs and continues to advocate for their instrumental role in addressing hunger and food insecurity as communities begin to resume normal operations following the pandemic.