School nutrition: Why some worry it’s at a “perilous juncture”

Stricter school nutrition guidelines are expected to be released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in April.

A range of financial and logistical challenges have the potential to disrupt school nutrition programs as pandemic relief funding expires, advocates say.

Nearly all of the 1,300-plus school meal program directors who responded to a School Nutrition Association survey report said they were grappling with increasing costs, with a large majority calling it “a significant challenge.” Many of these directors said they were worried they would not be able to procure foods that would meet stricter school nutrition guidelines expected to be released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in April.

“Inadequate funds and overly restrictive rules will soon cripple school meal programs,” said Chris Derico, president of the School Nutrition Association. “We believe all students deserve equal access to nutritious meals at school, and in schools that must charge for meals, we see inequities for children as well as unpaid meal debt increasing financial losses.”

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The association is now urging Congress to increase school meal funding and preserve current nutrition standards.

School nutrition supply chain snags

Fewer than one in five of the nutrition directors surveyed said current reimbursement rates cover the costs of producing a school lunch. This funding gap also makes it harder for district nutrition programs to pay competitive wages in today’s tight labor market, which in turn hinders efforts to provide healthier meals by cooking dishes from scratch.

Another top challenge identified by a large majority of school nutrition leaders was a shortage of menu items that will likely get worse if new nutritional standards are implemented. Districts with the highest numbers of students eligible for free-and-reduced eligibility are also the most likely to report severe procurement difficulties.

“With a lack of any nutrition mandates for dining or retail foods, limited demand for low-sodium and whole-grain products in the retail market leaves many manufacturers and distributors hesitant to prepare and stock specialty items for K12 customers,” the report asserts.

Unpaid meal debt continues to be a financial hurdle in districts that can no longer serve universal free meals. The shift back to paid meals since the pandemic has led to consistent drops in student participation, in part because some families fail to submit applications.

On the other hand, schools that provide free meals to all students also report a more positive social-emotional cafeteria environment, reduced stigma for low-income students and increased operational efficiencies, the report contends.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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