The Center for Ecoliteracy conducted a survey with California public school districts to learn about their school food budget deficits at the start of the 2020–21 school year. School food service directors responded from 39 public school districts that collectively represent over 800,000 students. Here are a few things we learned:
- COVID-19 has resulted in budget deficits for 92% of the responding school nutrition departments.
- The average deficit for each of the responding school districts was $1.36 million, or $56 per student.
- If this pattern holds true in other school districts across the state, initial estimates suggest California's school food programs could be facing as much as $325 million of debt for just the first six months of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Initial estimates are based on survey responses from 19 school districts that serve 7% of California's public school students.)
- California's $0.75 per meal allocation for March through mid-May will help, but is not enough. It will only cover current deficits for 4% of responding districts.
- Without action from the federal and state government, school food service departments may have to draw on general funds, reduce the quality of meals, and consider layoffs of school food service workers next year.
California families are coping with the COVID-19 pandemic, a record-breaking heatwave, power outages, and wildfires. The USDA has denied repeated requests for waiver extensions that would allow school districts the flexibility to continue providing free meals to all children aged 18 and younger. Additional flexibilities and funding would help secure consistent, healthy meals during a time of compounding crises.
To find out more, see the Survey Report: School Food Budget Deficits During COVID-19 and this blog post from Kat Taylor.