As school districts across the state announce extended closures to attempt to contain the spread of COVID-19, millions of low-income families in Texas may wonder how much longer they can rely on the school system for their children’s meals. Nearly 60 percent of the 5.4 million students in Texas public schools are eligible to receive free or reduced-price meals during the school day. For some students, those meals might be the most substantial ones they receive throughout the week.
On Sunday, as the state’s confirmed cases of COVID-19 rose to sixty, Texas education commissioner Mike Morath advised state and local officials to prepare for long-term school closures, potentially through the end of the semester. Later that night, Dallas ISD and a cluster of neighboring districts announced they would close schools through the end of the semester, moving all classes online. Some districts have announced they will continue offering meals on closed campuses. But it’s unclear how long, or in what form, the school lunch program—whose continuance would require people using it to wait in lines and congregate in public places—will be able to offer food as the pandemic progresses.
The percentage of students receiving subsidized meals varies widely across districts. To qualify for the national school lunch program, a child must live in a household with income at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty line. In Houston, where schools are closed for at least three weeks, 75 percent of students qualify for reduced-price meals; in Dallas, it’s 87 percent. Meanwhile, 91 percent of students in San Antonio, which is expecting to open schools again on March 23, qualify for free and reduced-price meals. (Even in wealthier suburban districts, many children are eligible: nearly a quarter of students in Plano, where schools are closed for two weeks, and a nearly a third in Katy, where they’re closed for nearly a month, receive free or reduced-price meals.)
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Providing meals while school is out is not unprecedented. Many districts across Texas provide food for students over winter and spring break. Dallas ISD students, for example, can come to specifically designated campuses to pick up breakfast, stay for educational activities, and then eat lunch, says Nina Lakhiani, a spokesperson for the district. That was the plan as of last week, before DISD announced the indefinite closure. The district is continuing to monitor and assess the situation, Lakhiani said in a follow-up email, but no definitive plans have been announced regarding the meal program.
The closest equivalent to the disruption facing schools now might be Hurricane Harvey in 2017: the Texas Department of Agriculture, which oversees the meal program in Texas, applied for waivers from the federal government so that it could expand its operations and serve students who had been displaced all over Southeast Texas. As of now, a similar expansion hasn’t been announced—in part because the state government has left school closure decisions up to local officials.
Several districts announcing extended closures due to the pandemic followed up with announcements that they would do their best to continue providing meals for families. In Austin and San Antonio, school districts announced they would extend meal programs through the length of the closure. Houston added meal pickup for families on a Saturday as well.
While providing meals throughout the period of closures is an essential service, Rachel Cooper, a policy analyst at the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities, says there are some potential roadblocks. For one, children must typically be present to receive meals; a family member can’t pick up a meal for a sibling or a daughter. That could spell trouble if a child is sick with COVID-19 and unable to show up. And in rural districts, some families rely on lengthy bus rides to get to the nearest school, which may also prove to be infeasible for working families when the school buses aren’t running anymore. So far, districts haven’t announced whether they will waive the policy, and they would likely need permission from the state to do so. Either way, the requirement to pick up meals at a campus may directly contradict public health guidelines to quarantine or isolate.
In the meantime, families might find their budgets stretched thin for meals outside of school as they wait for aid to trickle in from the federal government. Texas is one of a handful of states that ties assistance like food stamps to a work requirement or mandatory “employment and training activities.” While there are some exceptions for adults with children under age six, a repeated failure to meet the program’s requirement can lead to a loss of benefits for up to six months. If the head of household fails to comply, the whole family can lose benefits.
The coronavirus outbreak, and the subsequent closure of bars, restaurants, shops, and places of worship across the state, may leave many parents without a job or the mobility to participate in employment training. Governor Greg Abbott hasn’t announced a policy to waive the work requirement for food stamps, but the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill with overwhelming bipartisan support that would do so at the federal level through the course of the pandemic. The bill would also allocate $1 billion in funding for food security programs like food stamps, food banks, and school meals.
“This legislation gives the federal government the needed resources to keep our citizens from suffering economically and to help boost our economy. We are in a human crisis,” Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, of Houston, said in a statement.
An additional complication for low-income families is that shelves at grocery stores across the state are likely being emptied out by people who can afford to spend more up front on bulk items, says Tracey Burnett-Greenup, the director of case management at Family Houston, a social services organization. The organization is shutting down for a few weeks to comply with CDC recommendations on social distancing. The last time the organization had to shut down was after Hurricane Harvey, when it was closed for a week.
Like many natural disasters, the coronavirus outbreak throws into sharp relief how low-income families in Texas are the most vulnerable to disruptions and uncertainty. While customers continue to raid H-E-B for toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and pantry staples despite public officials begging them not to, others may be wondering where their next meal will come from—and how long that uncertainty will last. “We’ve dealt with disasters before, but also the recovery,” said Liz Green, a vice president at Family Houston. “We are anticipating what this will look like when hourly wage workers haven’t been to work for some time.”