Schools Are Closed, But School Districts Are Still Feeding Students In Need — With Help From The Census

Jackson and Leah Paczkowski make a pizza with items from grab-and-go meals provided by L.A. Unified. (Courtesy Nancy Paczkowski)

What's at stake for Southern California in the 2020 Census? Billions of dollars in federal funding for programs like Medi-Cal, for public education, even disaster planning. Political representation in Sacramento and D.C. A census undercount could cut critical resources in L.A. County, home to the largest hard-to-count population in the nation.


By Caitlin Hernandez and Gabriela Torres

School districts across the country participate in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National School Lunch and Breakfast programs. These programs provide reimbursement for free and reduced-price distributed meals to students from low-income homes.

L.A. Unified's free school nutrition programs have fed Nancy Paczkowski's two kids, Jackson and Leah, at school for more than four years. The National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs, with budgets informed by census data, have helped eligible families like the Paczkowskis in school districts across the U.S. eat healthily at school without worrying about cost.

Amid economic instability caused by the coronavirus pandemic, school districts have become large-scale food relief providers to students' families struggling to keep food on the table. In the spring, when schools across Southern California closed their campuses to slow the spread of COVID-19, many districts and charter schools advertised free grab-and-go meals for kids. Meals funded by federal school nutrition programs were repackaged as grab-and-go meals.

Because of USDA waivers put into place, meals were able to be given to any kid who asked for one, even if they didn't qualify for a free meal based on their family's income or went to school in a different district. Since March, LAUSD volunteers and staff have distributed nearly 65 million grab-and-go meals, an achievement funded in part through the federal programs, but mostly through donations and other streams of fundraising.

Many school districts offered grab-and-go meals during coronavirus-related campus closures. (Courtesy Alhambra Unified)

Kristin Hilleman, California School Nutrition Association chair of public policy and legislation, told LAist in August that waiving the normal rules regarding eligibility meant school meal programs could "in essence, operate a universal meal program for all students." Although the pandemic persists, the waivers that allowed schools to feed all kids under the Summer Food Service Program and the National School Lunch Program Seamless Summer Option have expired.

Paczkowski, whose kids are eligible for subsidized meals, has been able to feed her kids healthy meals by repurposing grab-and-go meals provided by LAUSD. When her family was running short on funds and stores were empty, Paczkowski's string-cheese pizza and ice cream — both made with grab-and-go foods — are what fed her kids.

"I could probably make it, you know, nutritious because I know how to do that," Paczkowski said about how she'd manage without the foods. "But there would certainly be very little variety [in our diet], and opportunity for creativity and opportunity to try new things, too. The kids have tried some new things."

WHAT ARE THE NATIONAL SCHOOL LUNCH AND SCHOOL BREAKFAST PROGRAMS?

The National School Lunch Program ensures a steady supply of fresh fruits and vegetables for growing American kids at little to no cost. The NSLP, established in 1946 under President Truman, was followed up by the Breakfast Program 20 years later, with similar parameters. The programs, run by the USDA, must meet federal nutrition guidelines, though decisions about the specific foods to serve and the methods of preparation are made locally by the schools.

The history of school lunch in America is rife with companies capitalizing on loopholes to unload processed food products on children to cut financial corners. One famous example was the proposed designation of ketchup (and relish) as a vegetable during Ronald Reagan's presidency. Decades later, few improvements have been made. As of the last update to regulations published in 2012, tomato paste can still count towards vegetable nutrition requirements. And yes, that includes pizza sauce.

While fried and highly processed foods are slowly making their way out, consistent funding can help prevent unhealthy choices. Part of the funding for the NSLP and School Breakfast program is used to train school nutritionists to help them plan healthy meals that kids will actually eat. It's a science to simultaneously get kids to eat vegetables, to meet nutrition requirements and reduce waste. Younger kids are also more likely to waste food, so unpopular veggies need a makeover to appeal to picky eaters.

HOW DOES A CENSUS UNDERCOUNT PUT HUNGRY KIDS AT RISK?

Formula-based federal funding amounts to several billions of dollars every year for the NSLP and School Breakfast program, making both programs two of the largest federally-subsidized programs in the U.S. The NSLP had the sixth-largest budget among census-informed federally-funded programs in 2015 (of 132 programs), with almost $19 billion provided. The School Breakfast program received just over $4 billion.

Schools' budgets could be unintentionally strained if federal nutrition programs are used by kids that weren't counted in the census. If a child is missed, the federal government doesn't know to account for them when budgeting for programs and services for at least the next 10 years. California loses roughly $1,000 annually for every person not counted in the census, according to the California Complete Count office. At least 4 million children aged 0-5 years old live in neighborhoods with a "very high risk of undercounting young children in the 2020 Census," according to a recent study by the Population Reference Bureau.


RELATED: Census Explained: Why The Census Matters In LA


Low-income families relied on nutrition initiatives like the NSLP and the School Breakfast Program, before the pandemic, but have leaned more heavily on them post-COVID-19. Collectively, the programs serve millions of meals each year to school-aged children. In 2019, 74% of National School Lunch and 85% of School Breakfast program meals fed students for free or at a reduced price, based on eligibility.

Paczkowski said repurposing grab-and-go meals has taught her kids how to be resourceful and think outside of the box to keep dinnertime interesting. It's a skill she says they'll need as she waits for her unemployment to process.

"[Food provided by LAUSD] was extremely necessary at the beginning of the pandemic," Packzkowski said. "And then we'd figured some stuff out. And now we're bottomed out again. So we will be relying on the grab-and-go [meals] heavily over the next few months."