Schools In Santa Cruz, Across CA Serve Meals Amid Closure

Courtney Teague

WATSONVILLE, CA — Despite the coronavirus pandemic keeping millions of California K-12 students hunkered down at home with computer screens replacing blackboards, there’s one schoolhouse ritual that remains the same albeit with substantial modifications: the school breakfast and lunch program.

No longer does student chatter echo in school cafeterias. In the age of coronavirus, Grab & Go meals distributed in drive-thru or walk-up feeding lines have replaced the parade of school children filing into lunchrooms. It’s the new face of brown bagging.

It’s forced schools in Santa Cruz County and across California to reevaluate.

Santa Cruz City Schools did not respond to a request for comment seeking information about its meal distribution program.

Districts Scramble To Continue Lunch Service

The federal National Student Lunch Program is an important part of America’s K-12 education system and has been a school district staple since its creation in 1946. Program creators sought to provide students with a free or reduced-priced nutritionally balanced meal for those who qualified. An experimental school breakfast program was launched in 1966 and made a permanent federal entitlement program in 1975. After-school snacks were included later.

In California the program is administered by the state Department of Education and operated on a reimbursement basis with most funding coming from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food & Nutrition Service and supplemented from the state’s general fund. Federal reimbursements are paid for all meals while California’s share is paid only for free and reduced-price meals. School districts submit monthly claims for payment by the state. During the first half of the school year that just ended the federal government provided a nationwide total of $6.3 billion in funding for the School Lunch Program and $2.8 billion for the Breakfast Program.

Open to all students enrolled in public and non-profit private schools, districts receive a combination of federal reimbursements and payments by the state. Students receive free or reduced-price meals if they qualify under a complex set of regulations that assess socioeconomic status, family income and other factors. According to the most recent statistics compiled by the state education department, during the 2018-19 school year there were some 3.5 million students who qualified for free or reduced-price meals.

However, faced with a public health emergency putting millions of California parents out of work and leaving the economy in a shambles, school districts that moved instruction online were suddenly faced with a new feeding format for students that were still technically “in school.” One problem was how to cover the cost of providing free meals to all students, including those whose meals did not qualify for reimbursement.

That concern was eliminated after schools closed in March when state and federal officials granted waivers to operate Grab & Go meal distributions and permitting school districts to serve all children regardless of whether they qualified for free meals or not. Last week the Agriculture Department extended the waiver nationwide for the remainder of the summer, leaving many school officials to decide whether they will continue service until the new school year begins.

Reimbursement rates are based upon the type of meal. During the school ending this month, the combined state and federal rate for the School Breakfast Program ranged from $1.54 for each reduced-price meal to $1.84 for each free meal served. For the School Lunch Program, combined reimbursement rates ranged from $3.01 to $3.50 for each meal. After school snacks were subsidized at 25-cents apiece. Breakfasts, lunches and snacks provided to students who paid full price were reimbursed at rates from 8-cents to 41-cents.

Reimbursements for meals provided through the Summer Food Program this year will range from $2.33 to $4.15 with snack subsidies averaging 97-cents.

Most districts have yet to assess the financial impact of their meal distribution programs on already-strained budgets. The additional cost of food and packaging materials resulted in unexpected expenses that included salaries and benefits for food service staff.

Despite reimbursement for all meals several districts have reported significant losses of revenue previously generated by a la carte meal sales when schools were open. Districts are also expecting substantial reductions in reimbursement amounts due to the fact that the number of meals distributed since March have been lower that meals served when schools were in operation.

By Bob Porterfield and Courtney Teague

This article originally appeared on the Santa Cruz Patch