Texas schools ask to give free meals to parents when kids aren’t present

Students grab lunch at a school in San Antonio. (Jennifer Whitney for the Texas Tribune)
Students grab lunch at a school in San Antonio. (Jennifer Whitney for the Texas Tribune)

Texas school superintendents and lawmakers are asking the state and federal government for more flexibility on how and what they feed students in free and reduced-price meals while schools are temporarily closed statewide due to the new coronavirus.

The Texas Department of Agriculture, which administers the federally funded school meal programs, received a federal waiver allowing school districts to hand out curbside breakfasts and lunches to parents who show up. But the law requires parents to bring their children with them to prove they qualify for a school meal — which educators and lawmakers argue contradicts public health recommendations during a crisis.

"This is ridiculous to expect somebody to put all their kids in a car and bring them up here and possibly expose them to the virus," said Troy Parton, superintendent at Munday Consolidated Independent School District in the Texas Panhandle.

State Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, who chairs the House Agriculture & Livestock Committee, co-signed a letter this week asking the TDA and U.S. Department of Agriculture to give school districts more flexibility on that requirement.

"That could spell trouble if a child is sick with COVID-19 and unable to show up," the lawmakers wrote in the letter. "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."

The letter also asks officials to loosen nutrition guidelines, as many school districts struggle to get shipments of food staples in bulk.

In a recent letter to school superintendents, the TDA acknowledged the challenge districts face if they are unable to serve meals to parents without children in tow. "USDA is aware of this national issue and is exploring ways to provide additional meal delivery flexibilities," the letter reads. "However, USDA has conveyed that meal service via a Grab-n-Go delivery methodology is very problematic when children are not present."

Parton said Munday CISD staff have been handing out meals to parents who don't come with their kids, risking the loss of funding if those meals are not federally reimbursed. He and his staff recognize all the parents in the 360-student school district, where more than 60% of students are economically disadvantaged.

On Monday, the first day the district began handing out meals after spring break, they gave out 91 breakfasts and 140 lunches. The next day, those numbers ballooned to 140 breakfasts and 220 lunches. "I have a feeling those are going to continue to increase," Parton said.

Urban school superintendents are also asking for some flexibility. Northside ISD Superintendent Brian Woods said he has been giving parents the number of meals they say they need, even if they won’t be reimbursed for all of them. “You’re essentially putting your local budget on the hook,” he said.