In mid-March, when Governor Cuomo closed all New York State schools because of COVID-19, he mandated that every school district continue to supply meals to students. Schools comply with this directive using one of two USDA FNS programs. If the district has participated in the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), it can enroll in that. For schools that have not enrolled in SFSP, those schools can enroll in the National School Lunch Program Seamless Summer Option (SSO). For schools to receive funding, they must submit a COVID-19 application to the State Education Department (SED). This is a one-page form asking when meal service will begin, the distribution method used to distribute the meals, how the school district will target low-income children if the district does not have at least 50% free and reduced-priced children enrolled, how availability will be communicated to eligible families, and how the school district will accommodate students with documented special dietary needs. In addition, they require an estimated meal count and meal content.
To help in the administration of this program, waivers are given to the district to allow meals to be taken off-premises, serving times to vary, parents or guardians to pick up the meals, and the meal pattern to be modified due to a lack of ingredients (i.e. shelf-stable milk instead of fresh milk).
We reached out to a few Long Island school lunch directors to see how they were coping with feeding students. The majority are using a “Grab-and-Go” concept to distribute both breakfast and lunch for their students. All meals must meet USDA nutritional standards. School districts are letting parents know of their availability on the district’s website and using robocalls to reach out to each household. Meals are being distributed by a variety of methods. They can be picked up in specified schools, including: pickup at the district, delivery via school buses along routes, and delivery directly to student homes (if necessary). Depending on the district, meals are given out 3-5 times a week. Regardless of the schedule, a minimum of 5 meals per week must be made available. Some districts are going above and beyond giving the children weekend meals on Fridays. Most of the districts we contacted are not limiting the lunches to just students, instead distributing them to anyone in the home under the age of 18.
The need for this meal plan is increasing as time goes on. In one smaller district, they distributed 25 meals the first week they were offered. Several weeks later, they were up to 125 meals per day. In another district, they began with 200 meals. They are now serving 800, and growing more each day. This shows that there is an ongoing need for this program. With so many people out there is a high likelihood that there will be more demand for schools to provide meals.
On the financial side, schools are reimbursed for each breakfast and lunch they serve. It remains unknown whether these reimbursements will be enough to cover actual costs to the districts. Food service programs that are self-run are currently paying their cafeteria employees even if they are not working. One district is paying time and a half for the workers that are preparing the Grab-and-Go meals using the logic that they are working while others who are getting their normal salary are not. In other districts, employees are volunteering to come in with no additional compensation. Schools are using existing food inventories as well as USDA donated food to help defer costs, but if this continues, Federal, State or local funds will be needed to support this program. School administrators across Long Island are very supportive of the Grab-and-Go meals. One of them stated that, if need be, they will find the funds to feed their students. We truly are “all in this together.”
Ray has been a member of Cerini & Associates audit staff since 2019. Prior to that he was owner of a Distribution and Manufacturing company dealing with schools and government agencies.