What an ongoing government shutdown could mean for school lunches

CNN  — 

Concern is mounting across the country over whether the government shutdown might have an effect on school lunches.

The US Department of Agriculture’s child nutrition programs – which provide low-cost or free school meals to children in need – are fully funded through the end of March, according to a tweet from USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue on Friday.

Yet with the shutdown at 34 days and counting, some schools and families are worried about what could happen to school meal programs if it continues.

“If the shutdown goes past March, what I think will happen is total chaos,” said James Weill, president of the nonprofit Food Research and Action Center in Washington.

“Certainly, some schools and some school districts are likely to stop serving meals to hungry kids or make the meals worse or smaller or less nutritious. And other school districts will try and pick up the costs locally and hope that they’ll get paid back from the federal government,” he said. “It’s likely that the poorer schools and the poorer districts, which need the federal school meals and child nutrition money the most, will be impacted the worst.”

The National School Lunch Program provides lunches to more than 29 million children nationwide every school day.

‘School meal programs operate on very tight budgets’

In a few cases, school districts are planning for the potential effects of the ongoing shutdown, and in one case, there is some impact now, Weill said.

The Vance County School District in North Carolina announced in a Facebook post last week that lunch menus have been revised in order to conserve food and funding.

“The Vance County Schools Nutrition Program for students is self-supporting with federal funds providing meals. We hope that normal lunch menus can be resumed as soon as possible once the shutdown has ended,” according to the post.

Cincinnati Public Schools in Ohio have a three-month cash reserve to help with funding school meals; however, “school meal programs operate on very tight budgets and many school districts may not have reserve funds,” Jessica Shelly, the food services director for Cincinnati Public Schools, wrote in an email.

She added that she remains concerned for the district’s families who are being directly impacted by the shutdown.

“There are a number of our parents who are furloughed – along with many TSA and EPA workers, there are over 3,000 IRS employees who live and have families in Cincinnati that are furloughed. Many of those parents are having to apply for food benefits for the first time,” Shelly said.

“The Cincinnati Freestore Foodbank has reported they’ve seen an increased demand for their services,” she said. “I also am troubled for our community partners who provide afterschool suppers through parallel USDA programs to our neediest students – without funding past March, those programs may be cut back.”

‘They’re vital to children and to families’

Looking ahead, the most important concern among many child nutrition programs nationwide is how to continue services for families who rely on reduced-priced or free school meals, said Brook Brubeck, the food service supervisor for Prairie Hills School District in Kansas, where about 32% of students qualify for free or reduced-priced meals.

“A reduced price is 30 cents for breakfast and 40 cents for lunch,” Brubeck said.

“We know of many families that rely on those during the school year to be able to provide nutritious, healthy meals because they really can’t afford to send lunch for their kids or they can’t afford to have breakfast,” she said. “They’re vital to children and to families.”

The federal government typically reimburses schools for providing such meals to families in need, but in case the shutdown continues beyond March, Brubeck plans to find ways to cut costs in her own budget so meals can still be provided.

“I’ll be looking at really watching my costs on our meals in the form of the more expensive items, like fresh produce,” Brubeck said.

“Some of our schools offer alternative meals, like a salad bar that kids can sign up for or grab-and-go meals if they don’t want the regular meal that day,” she said. “In order to cut costs, that would probably be something that I would think about doing away with.”

Get CNN Health's weekly newsletter

Sign up here to get The Results Are In with Dr. Sanjay Gupta every Tuesday from the CNN Health team.

Overall, school meals and child nutrition programs can have a significant effect on a child’s well-being. “We know from a vast body of research that school meals are hugely important, not just for making sure the kids aren’t hungry during the day but for their learning and for their education,” Weill said.

“Schools that have school meal programs – and strong school meal programs – have kids with higher test scores and greater achievement results,” he said. “One way to think of school meals is as a magical elixir for the well-being of students in schools across the board.”