U.S. School Virus Closings May Leave Millions Hungry, Officials Warn

Mike Dorning and Deena Shanker

(Bloomberg) -- U.S. school food service officials are warning that millions of children could go hungry because of coronavirus closings, with the group calling for more leeway to continue providing subsidized meals during the disruption.

“A lot of kids are going to go without food. We know that now on weekends. We know that on holidays,” said Katie Wilson, executive director of the Urban School Food Alliance, an association of nutrition officials for the nation’s largest school systems. “There will be a lot of children with no access to food.”

At least 12 states have announced school closings, including Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon and Ohio, along with the District of Columbia. Washington state ordered schools shut in three counties near Seattle. Houston also announced a two-week school closing.

Many school systems are weighing the impact on impoverished families of losing access to subsidized school meals as they decide whether to halt classes to control the spread of coronavirus. Almost 22 million children received free or reduced cost meals through the federal school lunch program in 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. More than 12.5 million also received subsidized breakfasts at school that year.

House Democrats’ emergency coronavirus legislation includes enhanced food stamp benefits but it doesn’t provide the flexibility school systems need for their food programs, Wilson said. The food stamp benefits won’t be enough to fill the gap from school meals, Wilson said.

Waivers Granted

Many families that receive food stamps also depend on school meals. Also, food goes directly to children under the school meal program, rather than depending on adults in the household under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the formal name for food stamps.

“There are still lots of of situations where children do not get access to that food” when families receive benefits under SNAP, Wilson said.

The USDA already has taken some steps to make it easier to continue feeding low-income children during the pandemic. The agency has advised school systems to follow arrangements allowed for summer and holiday breaks to feed children at schools or alternative sites, often at churches or civic organizations such as YMCAs.

The USDA granted waivers by Friday to 25 states and the District of Columbia to a requirement that children must be fed in “congregant” programs in which they eat together, a setting that would undermine efforts to control the spread of the disease.

But Wilson called for much more flexibility. Chief among the obstacles are limits on the alternative feeding programs that Congress should lift, she said.

School systems are allowed to use federal funding to provide meals during breaks in areas where at least half of students have low enough family incomes to qualify for subsidized meals. But any sites located elsewhere must be restricted only to students eligible for subsidized meals, typically verified by having them fill out application forms or show eligibility for food stamps. It’s such a cumbersome burden for civic organizations that most only run feeding centers in areas that automatically qualify, Wilson said.

“For us, it’s a huge burden because we’re trying to get food to kids in a crisis,” said Wilson, whose alliance represents a dozen of the nation’s largest school systems, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. “There will be millions of kids who get into food-insecure situations.”

The feeding centers also need flexibility to distribute a number of meals at one time, she said. Some states have received waivers to set up drive-through distribution centers but each eligible child must be in the car and the programs can only distribute meals for that day in order to qualify for federal reimbursement, Wilson said.

Heavily Regulated

Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association, a group representing school food service officials throughout the country, said there are myriad other limitations that will impede school systems as they struggle to provide meals during a pandemic that could cause supply-chain disruptions.

“Everything from procurement to menu to how they operate is very heavily regulated and very complex and our goal during this time of pandemic is to free schools from regulatory hurdles so they can just feed kids,” Pratt-Heavner said.

The economic disruptions from the coronavirus outbreak is likely to make it even harder for low-income families to feed their children just as schools are closing down, compounding the need for alternative arrangements, Wilson said.

A USDA spokeswoman said the department “is working to ensure children who are affected by school closures continue to get fed. USDA intends to use all available program flexibilities and contingencies to serve our program participants.”

Companies that supply food to schools are already predicting a hit to their business. Schools closing across the U.S. could cut into a major portion of Dean Foods Co.’s sales, a lawyer for the milk processor said in a bankruptcy hearing in Houston Thursday.

(An earlier version corrected figures on free or reduced cost lunches in fourth paragraph.)

(Updates number of states closing schools in third paragraph.)

To contact the reporters on this story: Mike Dorning in Washington at mdorning@bloomberg.net;Deena Shanker in New York at dshanker@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Joe Sobczyk at jsobczyk@bloomberg.net, James Attwood, Patrick McKiernan

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