Every school day, school nutrition programs contribute to the health, well-being and achievement of more than 30 million students across America. To sustain this success, school meal programs require greater support.
The School Nutrition Association (SNA) represents 57,000 professionals who serve students nutritious meals while being responsible stewards of federal funds. SNA urges Congress and the Administration to bolster historically under-funded school meal programs that are struggling to manage increased food and operating costs. While school meals should continue to meet robust federal nutrition standards, requirements must be streamlined to ease regulatory burdens and preserve the financial sustainability of school meal programs. Given the reality of the federal deficit and the absence of a Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill, SNA requests that Congress:
Oppose any effort to block grant school meal programs.
Block grants will cut funds and eliminate federal nutrition standards for school meals. Block grant funding caps will prevent schools from serving additional at-risk students when local economic downturns or rising enrollments increase the number of children eligible for free or reduced price meals. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) warned that block grants could “eliminate access to nutrition programs for some children and reduce it for others.”
In 1946, the federal government made a promise to America’s families that students will always have access to healthy meals at school. Congress speciﬁcally designed the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs to be entitlement programs. Participating schools are “entitled” to a federal reimbursement for all meals served. Federal regulations and nutrition standards for these programs ensure meals and student access to them are consistent from state to state.
Fixed- sum block grants would eliminate these federal guarantees and the promise that America’s students will have consistent access to the nutrition they need to succeed. Block grant proposals cut funds for school meal programs and nullify crucial federal mandates, including nutrition standards and student eligibility rules for free and reduced price meals.
Block Grants Restrict Student Access to School Meals:
Thanks to entitlement status, school meal programs always have the necessary funding to meet students’ nutritional needs. Funding fluctuates annually with the number of student meals served. When a natural disaster strikes, school enrollment increases, or a factory closes, the number of students receiving free and reduced price meals increases. Schools can serve more students knowing their reimbursement will rise to cover the added cost.
Fixed-sum block grants eliminate that guarantee, putting America’s most vulnerable students at risk. Block grants provide a finite amount of funding each year. If circumstances change mid-year, states do not receive additional funds to cover the cost of serving meals to students in need.
Block grants break the promise that America’s students will have consistent access to the nutrition they need to succeed.
Block Grants Slash Funds for School Meals:
The 2016 House-proposed block grant pilot would have slashed funds for school meal programs through an immediate funding cut and the elimination of annual adjustments, which help schools keep pace with rising costs. The proposal could have resulted in a crippling 12% funding cut after three years, according to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
(CBPP). Cash-strapped school districts would be forced to cover meal program losses at the expense of academics. Further cuts would also impact hiring practices in school cafeterias nationwide.
History demonstrates that block grants shrink available funding over time, severely limiting a program’s ability to serve Americans in need. A CBPP analysis of 13 major housing, health, and social services block-grant programs reveals that combined funding for the programs declined by 26 percent — or $13 billion in 2016 dollars — from 2000 to 2016. Notably, when adjusted for inflation, funding under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant has plummeted by 32 percent, despite population growth.
In a September 2015 report, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office warned that: “block grants that are smaller than the funding that current legislation would provide would probably eliminate access to nutrition programs for some children and reduce it for others. Such grants would also leave the programs unable to respond automatically to economic downturns.”
Block Grants Abolish Crucial Federal Standards:
Block grants void federal rules that ensure the uniformity and consistency of school meal programs across the nation. States could set their own rules on which children are eligible for free or reduced price meals, restricting access for low income children currently enrolled in the program. States could abandon all federal nutrition mandates, and under the proposed pilot, states would be required to only serve one “affordable” meal a day to students, threatening recent national progress in expanding student access to healthy school breakfasts.
Block grants could void Buy American mandates and impact USDA Foods assistance for school meal programs, which have supported America’s farmers and introduced students to a wide variety of healthy US grown foods.
Support schools, US farmers and students in the next Farm Bill by providing 6 cents in USDA Foods for every school breakfast served.
Currently, commodity support is only provided for school lunch. Expanding USDA Foods to support the School Breakfast Program will allow more students to benefit from a nutritious school breakfast, help schools cover rising costs and advance USDA’s mission of supporting America’s farmers.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides two types of assistance to the schools participating in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP): cash reimbursement for meals served and USDA Foods, or “commodities.” Participating schools rely on this aid to operate school meal programs.
The USDA Foods program purchases high-quality domestic agricultural products and distributes them to states for use in preparing school meals. USDA purchases include fruits and vegetables, lean protein and low-fat dairy foods, whole grains and oils. USDA Foods account for approximately 15-20 percent of the foods served as part of school lunch.
Although USDA Foods may be served as part of school breakfast, a state’s USDA Foods entitlement is based only on the number of lunches served and does not account for the more than 14 million breakfasts served each school day.
With research affirming the importance of breakfast to academic success, school nutrition programs have worked to increase student access to healthy school breakfasts. Expanding USDA Foods to support the School Breakfast Program would sustain this effort, ease the burden on financially strapped meal programs and advance USDA’s mission of supporting America’s farmers.
Within the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, Congress provided schools an additional 6 cents per lunch to meet the updated nutrition standards. Congress could support the School Breakfast Program and US farmers by passing H.R. 3738, the Healthy Breakfasts Help Kids Learn Act. H.R. 3738 provides schools 6 cents in commodities for every breakfast served, at a cost of $147 million annually (based on the number of breakfasts served in Fiscal Year 2016).
Expanding USDA Foods Will Support Students:
Expanding USDA Foods would allow more children to enjoy a wider variety of American grown foods as part of a nutritious school breakfast. USDA Foods support would also help schools invest in innovative breakfast in the classroom or grab-and-go breakfast programs, proven to increase school breakfast consumption.
Research shows students who eat school breakfast perform better on standardized tests, and have improved classroom behavior and attendance. With 13 million children living in food insecure households in the U.S., school breakfast is critical to ensuring students receive the nutrition they need to succeed at school.
Expanding USDA Foods Will Support Schools:
Updated nutrition standards required schools to increase the quantity of whole grains, fruits and vegetables they serve, but federal funding increases have not kept pace with costs. USDA estimated the cost of meeting new school breakfast mandates would increase food and labor expenses by 27 cents per breakfast, yet no additional funding or USDA Foods entitlement was provided to help schools manage higher breakfast costs. School meal programs have struggled in recent years to manage these rising food and labor expenses.
Thanks to USDA’s large volume purchasing power, schools are able to “purchase” USDA Foods at a lower price point than in the commercial market, allowing schools to stretch their food dollars further.
Providing USDA Foods for school breakfast would help reduce schools’ food expenditures, allowing them to manage rising costs and invest limited foodservice dollars into menu improvements for students.
Expanding USDA Foods Will Support Farmers:
Expanding USDA Foods helps farmers by increasing purchases of 100% American grown foods. To ensure the program supports the domestic agricultural market, nearly 60 percent of the foods purchased must be determined by USDA to be in surplus.
Thanks to DoD Fresh, schools have dramatically increased purchases of fresh fruits and vegetables through regionally-based produce vendors, to the benefit of local growers and students.
Provide schools practical flexibility under federal nutrition standards to prepare healthy, appealing meals.
Overly prescriptive regulations have resulted in unintended consequences, including reduced student lunch participation, higher costs and food waste. Federal nutrition standards should be modified to help school menu planners manage these challenges and prepare nutritious meals that appeal to diverse student tastes. In particular, USDA should:
- Maintain the Target 1 sodium levels and eliminate future targets. The Institute of Medicine warned that “reducing the sodium content of school meals as specified and in a way that is well accepted by students will present major challenges and may not be possible.” (School Meals: Building Blocks for Healthy Children)
- Restore the initial requirement that at least half of grains offered through school lunch and breakfast programs be whole-grain rich. The current mandate that all grains offered be whole grain rich has increased waste and costs, while contributing to the decline in student lunch participation. Students are eating more whole grain breads and rolls, but schools are struggling with limited availability of specialty whole grain items and meeting students’ regional and cultural preferences for certain refined grains, such as white rice, pasta, grits, bagels or tortillas.
SNA supports maintaining robust federal nutrition standards to ensure all students receive nutritious, well-balanced meals at school. However, some overly prescriptive rules have resulted in unintended consequences, including reduced student lunch participation, higher costs and food waste. A recent report from The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that despite strategies to promote healthier school meals, more than 60% of school nutrition directors faced challenges meeting the standards in the 2014/15 School Year. Sodium and whole grain requirements were cited as the top challenges.
Federal nutrition standards should be modified to help school menu planners manage these challenges and prepare nutritious meals that appeal to diverse student tastes. In particular, USDA should:
Maintain the Target 1 sodium levels and eliminate future targets:
Schools made significant sodium reductions to meet Target 1, effective July 2014. Before advancing to Target 2, the Institute of Medicine recommended assessing the impact of Target 1 “on student participation rates, food cost, safety and food service operations to determine a reasonable target for the next period…reducing the sodium content of school meals as specified and in a way that is well accepted by students will present major challenges and may not be possible.” (School Meals: Building Blocks for Healthy Children, 2010)
Naturally occurring sodium present in meat, milk and other low-fat dairy foods will force schools to take nutritious choices off the menu, including many soups, entrée salads and low-fat deli sandwiches.
The Government Accountability Office warned that forthcoming limits on sodium would remain problematic with cost and product availability making sodium targets difficult for many schools to implement.
Restore the initial requirement that at least half of grains offered through school lunch and breakfast programs be whole grain rich.
SNA supports the July 2012 requirement that half of all grains offered with school meals be whole grain rich. However, the current mandate that all grains must be whole grain rich has increased waste and costs, while contributing to the decline in student lunch participation.
Students are eating more whole grain breads and rolls. But schools are struggling with limited availability of specialty whole grain items and meeting students’ regional and cultural preferences for certain refined grains. Schools should be permitted to serve white rice, pasta, grits, bagels or tortillas on occasion, just like most families do.
Simplify regulations to improve efficiencies and provide $1 million to conduct an independent study of the federal Child Nutrition Programs
Program complexities add to school nutrition costs. Duplicative and overly burdensome administrative mandates divert school nutrition professionals’ attention from their mission of nourishing students.
Federal child nutrition regulations play an important role in ensuring the uniformity and consistency of school meal programs for students nationwide. However, the overwhelming complexity of child nutrition regulations and administrative requirements is unnecessarily hindering efforts to better serve students. Program complexities add to school nutrition costs.
Schools spend an excessive amount of time reviewing policy memos and preparing paperwork in advance of the cumbersome Administrative Review process. Duplicative and overly burdensome administrative mandates make inefficient use of school nutrition directors’ time, keeping them at their desks instead of in cafeterias, interacting with students and staff. That time could be better utilized for program improvements, such as hosting student taste tests, planning nutrition education initiatives and improving cafeteria operations.
SNA urges Congress and USDA to simplify regulations to improve efficiencies and provide $1 million to conduct an independent study of the federal Child Nutrition Programs. The study would help identify key steps to simplify child nutrition programs and ease burdens on School Food Authorities and State Agencies.
The Government Accountability Office found USDA issued nearly 4,700 pages of guidance on the updated standards between Jan. 2012 and Apr. 2015