Drop in School Lunch Participation Leaves Budget Shortfalls

Far fewer students in Connecticut schools are taking advantage of free and reduced meal programs this year, a trend that could place local districts in a difficult financial situation. 

Ian Neviaser, superintendent of schools in Region 18, which includes Lyme and Old Lyme, said at a recent Board of Education meeting that the school district expects to see a decrease of around $80,000 in funding this year from a lack of participation in the program. 

Because of the circumstances surrounding the coronavirus, free breakfast and lunch is available this year for all students regardless of household income. Neviaser said one reason people may not be taking advantage of the free and reduced lunch program is that there is a misconception that it’s not meant for them. 

One reason for the shortfall is that many districts have spent part of September and October in a hybrid model, meaning that only half the normal number of students are in school to receive meals on any given day.

Another reason is that some schools have had to revert to a remote model of instruction for intermittent periods after students or staff were exposed to individuals who test positive for the virus. 

Julie Pendleton, director of operations, facilities and finance at Old Saybrook Schools, estimated they have been providing about a quarter of the number of meals that they would in a normal school year. 

“It certainly has been a challenge for all of us,” said Pendleton. 

Old Saybrook is not alone. John Frassinelli of the state Department of Education’s Bureau of Health, Nutrition, Family Services and Adult Education, said he’s heard from multiple districts that lower numbers of children are picking up breakfast and lunch. 

Frassinelli said some districts have tried creative ways of getting meals to students during the pandemic, like making deliveries to certain locations, considering home deliveries and allowing students to pick up meals for the weekend. 

In some of these districts, these efforts have paid off. In East Lyme, for instance, the schools offer curbside, free meal pick-up three days a week. While the amount of lunches the district provided decreased from just over 41,000 in September and October of 2019 to about 25,500 in the same months of 2020, the number of breakfasts they provided increased by about 40 percent — from 6,970 to 11,536 breakfasts served. 

Districts submit monthly reports to the state outlining the number of meals they have provided to students and are reimbursed through a federal grant from the United States Department of Agriculture. Reimbursements are $1.89 for breakfasts and $3.51 for lunches. 

However, the school must purchase food materials and pay cafeteria staff salaries and benefits regardless of whether the students take advantage of the meals, which can put pressure on a district’s budget if the students and families don’t pick up breakfasts and lunches. 

In Old Saybrook, for instance, the district generally receives $40,000 to $60,000 in reimbursements, which is used to pay for operating costs at the start of the following year. Pendleton said that even in a normal year, it can be a difficult program to keep afloat.

“You’re getting pennies for meals,” she said. 

Region 4 schools, which include Chester, Deep River and Essex, are also seeing a decline due to the pandemic. From July 2019 through June 2020, the district saw a deficit of $54,247 in cafeteria expenditures. 

Between September of 2019 and February of 2020, the district’s five schools provided anywhere between 3,800 and 7,100 meals per month, and earned an additional $10,000 to $22,000 in lunches that were sold at regular price. In March, the pandemic brought this to a halt. In September of 2019, the district earned a total of $31,085 from the cafeteria. By June, that number was down to $948. 

Although the schools returned to in-person instruction, participation is still very low, according to Region 4 Finance Director Kelly Sterner. 

Operation costs for the 2020-21 year totaled $220,000. In a memo to Region 4 superintendent Brian White, Sterner wrote that they hoped “to reimburse the deficit overtime.” 

Pendleton said Old Saybrook is also considering how to compensate for the loss.

One option could be subsidizing the program through a line item in the town budget. The program has been self-sustaining for over 20 years, but she’s not convinced that they won’t have to ask for help in the coming months. 

“I think that day is coming,” she said.

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