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2021
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Pandemic wreaks havoc on school food service, transportation budgets

As school leaders across the region debated the best way to keep students safe during the covid-19 pandemic, budgets for food and transportation services largely went bust as both districts and outside companies were left with fewer bodies queuing through cafeteria lines or riding buses.

With schools bringing students back to the classroom at different rates — some welcomed them all back at the start of the year, while others followed a hybrid model of learning or went fully remote — impacts to food and transportation budgets varied by district. Several lost money on food service, and some saved on transportation.

“Overall, it really varied district to district, and my guess is we won’t have a full accounting of that until sometime this fall or early winter (when they can look) back over what each district did,” said Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.

However, a March report from the School Nutrition Association suggested that schools across the country served 1.7 billion fewer meals between March and November 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. That equated to a $2.1 billion loss in federal revenue for school meal programs.

According to the Virginia-based nonprofit, school meal programs in a typical year are funded by cafeteria sales and federal reimbursements for meals served. Programs often receive around $3.50 per meal, so to break even, organizations rely on a la carte sales and catering programs. School closures, however, largely slashed that revenue.

“We saw a huge financial impact for school nutrition programs,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association. “It did vary from one community to the next a bit based on the extent to which they were able to make sure kids continued to receive their meals.”

Efforts were made by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to extend free meals to all students throughout the pandemic, which allowed districts to provide drive-thru meal services while students learned remotely and, in some cases, permitted districts to deliver food to pickup areas.

The extension also allowed districts to serve food through the summer food service program, which provides a higher reimbursement rate compared to the national school lunch and school breakfast program, Heavner noted. However, while the cost of meals was largely covered, districts still incurred other expenses.

“Consequently, you still have to pay your staff to come in and prepare the meals, you have to pay for the delivery service to get them out into those sites in the community, so my guess is most of those districts lost some money in that regard and hopefully the federal stimulus money will help cover some of those costs going back to March of 2020,” DiRocco said.

Peggy Gillespie, assistant to the superintendent for finance and operations at Kiski Area School District, attributed lost revenues to the district keeping on the same number food service workers as in a typical year, even with fewer students in school buildings.

Gillespie noted the district is “in a loss