Schools across the state saw their meal counts plummet this spring despite their efforts to make free meals accessible to families — amplifying concerns about child hunger amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Child hunger usually increases over the summer when school meals are harder to come by, and advocates fear even more families will face food insecurity as they grapple with sweeping layoffs and economic strain.
“In the summer, we know there are hungry kids out there. It’s the core of why we do what we do, and it can be unsettling when you know that we could provide for them,” said Tammie Colley, food and nutrition director for Bemidji Area Schools. “I think there’s definitely going to be more need (this summer).”
The situation could deteriorate further as the pandemic drags on and extra unemployment and federal benefits dry up, food shelves run on empty and school district budgets get squeezed.
The ramifications are enormous: Hungry students are at higher risk for physical and mental health issues and tend to experience worse academic outcomes.
The meal pickups and dropoffs instituted by some school districts were an important lifeline for many families since Gov. Tim Walz ordered school closures in mid-March to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Now with the school year over in many districts, pickup sites will be consolidated in districts that have summer meal programs and dropoff will cease.
Elizabeth Marsh of Zimmerman said she and her two children picked up school lunches almost every day since in-person classes were cancelled. Marsh, a licensed practical nurse, has stayed home since the pandemic hit Minnesota to care for her medically high-risk daughter, and she said the meals provide financial relief and a sense of normalcy during this high-anxiety period.
“It’s just a huge blessing in general because parents are already stressed out. You’re trying to do distance learning. You may or may not be working,” Marsh said. “It’s just so nice to be able to have the lunch provided, something you don’t have to worry about.”
But not all families were able to take advantage. In a national survey of more than 1,800 school districts, 80% said they served fewer meals after schools closed — like in Bemidji, where daily meal counts dropped about 50%, Colley said. The district offered bundled meals three days a week at 10 pickup sites, as well as delivery along normal bus routes.
Montevideo Public Schools shared notices about its meal pickup and delivery program in the newspaper, on the radio and in letters to parents to raise awareness. The district served around 350 meals each day this spring — a fraction of the total usually served to its 1,400 students, said Superintendent Luther Heller. Anoka-Hennepin Public Schools, the state’s largest district, saw its meal totals drop about 70%, said Noah Atlas, child nutrition director.
When Walz ordered schools to close in March, food staff at many schools had to rework their meal plans in less than 72 hours. In many schools, a handful of staff work under tight schedules and tighter budgets to prepare provisions for hundreds of students each day — sometimes providing a child’s only meal. More than one-third of Minnesota students, nearly 320,000 children, qualify for subsidized meals.
There’s no clear reason why districts’ meal counts declined even as the COVID-19 pandemic has spurred an economic downturn, with low-income workers bearing the brunt of the fallout. Nutrition staff suspect that barriers like lack of transportation and parents’ work schedules intensified since March — and the social stigma around free school meals is pervasive even during a pandemic.
In the midst of the crisis, child hunger is likely on the rise. More than 750,000 Minnesotans have filed for unemployment benefits since mid-March, or about 25% of the workforce. In a national survey in April, 40% of mothers with children under 13 said their families were experiencing food insecurity, up from 15% in 2018. Food prices that month increased at the highest rate since 1974.
But not eating school lunch doesn’t necessarily mean a child is going hungry. Nutrition workers say some families must be making do at home, and unemployment benefits and federal stimulus money could be helping.
Plus, the Minnesota Department of Human Services announced Friday that the state was approved for a federal program intended to make up for limited access to school meals. Through Pandemic EBT, families who qualify for subsidized lunch will be given $325 per child on an electronic card for grocery shopping.
Anoka-Hennepin School District nutrition staff Kim Cronky, left, and Sherry McClellan, right, hand grab-and-go lunches to a family at Anoka High School’s pickup site on May 22, 2020. Rilyn Eischens/Minnesota Reformer
Still, school staff know that some children miss out on meals during breaks and long weekends, and school closures this spring and summer are no exception.
Not all Minnesota districts saw dwindling meal numbers, however. Nearly 1,060 children ate meals from Menahga Public School District each day this spring, representing almost 100% of the district’s student body. Virtually all the meals were delivered in the rural district, which spans 260 square miles just south of Park Rapids.
Superintendent Kevin Wellen credited this high participation rate to the district’s culture around school lunch — meals have been free for all students for the past four years — and an awareness campaign this spring. On the first day school buildings were closed, the district delivered meals to every family with information about the program. Still, he expects participation will drop significantly this summer.
Joe McDonald, CEO of VEAP, one of the metro’s largest food shelves, said the organization expects community need will be heightened this summer. They’re prepared to feed more Minnesotans, but accessibility is still a concern, McDonald said. Adults who are unemployed for the first time may not know food shelves like VEAP exist, and others might not have transportation.
VEAP, like many nonprofits, could feel a financial squeeze in coming months. The food shelf’s annual gala, expected to bring in about $250,000, was canceled, and they’re preparing for “donor fatigue” to set in as the pandemic and economic downturn stretch on, McDonald said.
The Southern Anoka Community Assistance food shelf is also grappling with lost resources heading into the summer. An annual spring food drive that typically brings in 14,000-16,000 pounds of food was cancelled, and so was an event that raises about $50,000, the equivalent of 500,000 pounds of food — enough to stock the pantry for several months, said Co-Director Dave Rudolph. They’re also seeing their volunteer corps dwindle.
School nutrition programs are facing financial strain as well. In a national survey, 90% of school districts surveyed reported that they were at least seriously or moderately concerned about financial losses due to the pandemic. Anoka-Hennepin’s nutrition program revenues will be down about $2 million this spring — approximately 10% of the program’s budget — because of a significant drop in meal and a la carte sales, Atlas said.
School nutrition programs operate on slim margins, so shortfalls are hard to recover from, said Mary Jo Lange, president-elect of the Minnesota School Nutrition Association and food service coordinator for Red Lake School District. Amid the financial uncertainty, nutrition staff are also trying to plan for fall without knowing whether in-person classes will resume, she said.
“It’s a huge problem. We’re getting past the point where we’re worried about how (current service) is going to work because we’ve got it down, but now we’re worried about three months from now,” Lange said. “How are we going to feed these kids? What is it going to look like?”