East Texas public schools are continuing to feed children, but a pandemic-fueled revenue hit is resulting in deficits in districts’ child nutrition budgets.

During an update Monday to Longview ISD trustees, Chief Financial Officer Joey Jones said if the district continues with its current revenue versus expenditure rate, he expects a deficit of $360,000.

Jones said one solution would be to cover the deficit with money from the district’s general fund.

Pine Tree ISD Director of Child Nutrition Michelle Mitchell said when she makes a budget for the year, she looks at how many meals were served the previous year, how much government funding was received and how much was made in cash sales. That process helps Mitchell plan a balanced child nutrition budget.

She said the district is facing a deficit in its child nutrition budget because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it is important to her that shortfall doesn’t grow because she doesn’t want to need a general fund transfer to cover it.

“That’s the money that is needed to educate our students,” Mitchell said.

Part of the problem is fewer students are in school to buy items in the cafeteria, but Mitchell said food costs have increased, as well.

“The distributors are having problems acquiring a lot of items for us. The manufacturers are having labor issues, which is impacting our programs because we’re having a difficult time getting the items we need for our programs,” Mitchell said. “There are specifics for every meal for it to be a reimbursable meal. The market prices are increasing because manufacturers are having problems getting people, which is shorting the distributors which funnels it down to our programs.”

Schools are required to serve certain types of meals from each food group that have certain nutritional values to receive state and federal funds. That government funding allows schools to serve free or reduced-cost breakfast and lunch to students.

White Oak ISD Director of School Nutrition Lori Ferguson said in a statement that the district is experiencing higher prices for grocery items, as well.

“Prices for general grocery items have gone up considerably, and many items are out of stock and hard to get, thus causing us to purchase more expensive items to replace the standard items we used to get,” she said. “Some districts have families struggling to pay for lunches since so many people are out of work due to the pandemic. Here in East Texas, the oilfield crisis has impacted many families who have always had good incomes from the oilfield jobs. Parents are encouraged to fill out a free and reduced lunch form if they are struggling to pay for meals.”

Ferguson said Pine Tree ISD’s budget has been impacted, but the effect has been minimal so far partly because of the district’s low number of virtual learners.

Staffing also is affecting districts’ child nutrition budgets.

Longview ISD Superintendent James Wilcox told the board Monday there are fewer students to serve, so campuses cafeterias are overstaffed. He said he wants to avoid laying off those workers until more students come back to school.

“We feel like our cafeteria employees have been loyal to the district, and we are doing everything we can to maintain their employment,” he said.

Kristen is the News-Journal's education reporter. A Longview native, she got a journalism degree and a graduate certificate at Texas Tech University. She covers a variety of issues, including school finance, board meetings and happenings at local schools.