72ºF

Texas schools seeing steep declines in number of students getting free meals

Round Rock ISD food service worker Hema Patel prepares meals for families during a curbside meal distribution at Bluebonnet Elementary School in Round Rock.                    Credit: Allie Goulding/The Texas Tribune
Round Rock ISD food service worker Hema Patel prepares meals for families during a curbside meal distribution at Bluebonnet Elementary School in Round Rock. Credit: Allie Goulding/The Texas Tribune

During the final week of a hot Texas August, Jennifer Gradel contemplated walking 5 miles round trip to pick up free meals for her three teenagers from their Livingston school.

Gradel gets a few hundred dollars in federal food assistance benefits for her family, but by the end of the month, food runs low. With the kids at home all day taking classes online, she now has to come up with 30 more meals each week — which they normally would have eaten for free at school.

The school, like most in the state, is allowing families to pick up free meals to take home. But that does Gradel little good if she can’t get there.

“Before it was kind of a relief when kids would be able to go to school because you didn’t have to worry about breakfast and lunch,” Gradel said. “And those groceries would last.”

Nearly 3.65 million Texas students were eligible for free or reduced-price school meals last year, according to the Texas Department of Agriculture. Data for the current school year is not available yet, but tens of thousands more students will likely be eligible this year as the number of families qualifying for unemployment and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits are at record highs, experts said.

But some Texas school districts say they’re feeding far fewer students than they did before the pandemic hit. Pflugerville Independent School District, just outside of Austin, is serving nearly 10,000 students a week, compared with 125,000 at the same time last year. In Premont ISD, a rural district in south Texas, roughly 50 of the 200 students doing remote learning are getting their grab-and-go meals. Houston ISD used to serve 250,000 meals a day. Now the number hovers around 30,000.

Almost half of all families face food insecurity during the ongoing pandemic, with Black and Latino families the most affected, according to a report from No Kid Hungry, a campaign addressing childhood hunger from the nonprofit Share Our Strength.

And as school-based nutrition programs serve fewer students, districts are losing money. The federal government reimburses schools based on how many meals they provide to eligible children.

Districts are trying not to lay off cafeteria staff, and they’re spending more on personal protective equipment and the additional costs to run curbside pickup — like buying refrigerated carts to safely store meals outside. Austin ISD projects a $3 million deficit in its nutrition department for the upcoming school year. Premont ISD spent an additional $112,000 for food service expenses related to the pandemic in the past academic school year.

“The costs are higher because we are committed to maintaining our staff. And we’re staffed to serve 75,000 meals per day and are only serving 15,000,” said Anneliese Tanner, Austin ISD’s executive director of food services and warehouse operations.

The struggle to access free or reduced price meals is hitting the most vulnerable low-income families the hardest.

Some households have family members with medical conditions that prevent them from venturing out for grab-and-go school meals multiple times a week. Others work during the day or don’t have time to wait in line. Some, like Gradel, don’t have reliable transportation to get to the closest meal location.

Gradel doesn’t have a car, and public transportation is limited. There’s no one she can depend on to pick up the meals for her every day in the allotted one-hour window.

Walking takes at least an hour and a half, and Gradel can’t leave her kids home alone that long. Her 14-year-old son has epilepsy and lung disease, and she needs to be with him in case he has a seizure.

Most districts offering meals are doing some variation of curbside pickup during a specific time frame at select campuses. Some are supplementing pickup efforts with targeted delivery.

Rio Grande City Consolidated ISD’s cafeteria personnel are in the kitchen at 6 a.m. making tortillas, washing fruit and packing meals in disposable containers. By 11 a.m. they roll insulated carts out into the “brutal” heat and stand under shaded canopies for two and a half hours handing out meals, said Patsy Ramirez, the district’s child nutrition director.

Rio Grande City CISD’s meal pickups are Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. On Mondays and Wednesdays, each child gets meals for two days. This week, the district started a program to drop off meals by bus in some neighborhoods. As of Thursday, it has served more than 500 students.

But Ramirez may have to rework the district’s entire distribution system.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved extensions allowing districts to continue the distribution programs they implemented over the summer. It was a backhanded win for school officials and nutrition experts who spent months asking for the extension — noting that it would give districts flexibility to feed more children — only for it to be dropped in their laps just a week before the first day back at most Texas schools. Some districts, like Rio Grande City CISD, had reopened schools weeks before.

The Summer Food Service Program model that was extended allows any child 18 or younger to get a free meal even if they aren’t enrolled in school. A parent with two school-age kids can also pick up a meal for their toddler or recent high school graduate. The traditional school meal programs districts use during the school year — the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program — only allow meals for enrolled students.

If districts opt into the expanded program, they’ll have to redo the meal distribution systems they spent the last several months tailoring to pandemic needs and safety precautions. Ramirez’s district mailed out papers with barcodes corresponding to each child for parents to use at curbside meal pickup. This system would ensure each meal was accounted for by an eligible child, making it federally reimbursable.

“It’s so hard navigating through all of that red tape, it really is,” Ramirez said.

This flexibility and increased reimbursement from the USDA is an attractive option for many districts, but the extension’s Dec. 31 end date could put districts back in a tough spot come January.

“I just wish that they would have announced those flexibilities in July because so much time, so much effort has been invested in preparing for the new year,” Ramirez said. “They changed their minds from one day to the next, and I wonder if we’re going to have another change next week.”

Addressing child hunger can’t only fall on schools, said Lucy Coady, a No Kid Hungry director. The group endorses reinforcing the state’s food network by supporting local food banks and pantries and making federal resources more accessible.

In late March, the state temporarily removed barriers — like pay stub reviews, work requirements and interview requirements — that made it harder for people to get approved for SNAP. While some protections are still in place, the state has reinstated some barriers, like the interview requirements.

Over the summer, low-income families got $285 in federal aid, known as Pandemic-EBT, per child to make up for the free and reduced-price meals they missed while schools were closed in the spring because of the coronavirus pandemic. Food advocacy experts are urging Congress to pass a coronavirus relief bill that extends Pandemic-EBT through the school year, but the relief bill has stalled in Congress for the last several months.

A robust food system, together with school meals, would ensure that “even in the direst of circumstances, parents don’t have to worry about where their kids are going to get meals from,” Coady said.

Sign up for The Brief, the Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.