School nutrition professionals mobilized immediately when the pandemic closed school doors nationwide, and despite challenges, they continue to ensure student access to healthy school meals. Through the extension of federal waivers, school breakfast, lunch, summer meals and afterschool meals have offered a lifeline for families struggling with economic uncertainty or the challenges of balancing work and distance learning. These programs, proven to fuel student success and combat child hunger and obesity, will be critical to our nation’s recovery. To support the health and achievement of America’s students and ensure the financial sustainability of school meal programs, the non-profit School Nutrition Association (SNA) calls on Congress to:
Permanently expand the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs to offer all students meals at no charge as an integral part of the educational experience
Universal Meals Will:
- Provide all students equal access to school breakfast and lunch and eliminate any stigma or barriers for students to benefit from these meals. Nutritious school meals are proven to support learning, improve attendance and classroom behavior and contribute to overall health and wellness.
- Ensure no child goes hungry during the school day or accrues unpaid meal debt, a burden on families and school district budgets.
- Eliminate the costly, time-consuming meal application and verification process, and streamline paperwork and reporting requirements. Parents won’t have to worry about complicated meal applications, and school nutrition professionals can focus on nourishing students.
Nutritious School Meals for All Students Will:
Support academic achievement and foster healthy eating habits.
School meals are proven to support learning, boost test scores and improve attendance and classroom behavior. These meals contribute to students’ overall health and wellness and combat childhood hunger. Research shows school lunches support obesity prevention; children receiving school lunches consume fewer empty calories and more milk, fruit, vegetables and fiber than their peers. Providing all students equal access to healthy school breakfast and lunch as part of their educational experience will ensure every child is nourished and ready to learn each school day.
Ensure access to healthy school meals at a critical time.
Since the pandemic, more than 4 in 10 children live in households that struggle to meet expenses, putting children at risk of going without the nutrition they need to focus on their studies. Food insecurity is linked to negative health, development and educational outcomes, such as slower progress in math and reading and a higher likelihood of repeating a grade.
Historically, only students from homes with incomes below 130 percent of the poverty line ($34,060 for a family of four in 2020/21) are eligible for free school meals. Recognizing the extensive barriers to access school meals during the pandemic, including stigma and the complicated free meal application process, USDA issued regulatory waivers allowing schools to serve all students free meals in SY 2020/21.
As the nation recovers, continuing to provide school meals at no charge will ensure no child goes hungry during the school day, experiences shame or accrues unpaid meal debt, a significant burden on families and school district budgets. Pre-pandemic, 75% of school districts reported having unpaid student meal debt, and the amount of debt reported was rising. When families are unable to pay for student meals, schools must cut into education funds to cover the debt. Providing meals at no charge will eliminate unpaid meal debt, anticipated to increase as a result of current economic challenges. No student will have to worry about going without a healthy meal at school.
Ease burdens on school nutrition staff, so they can focus on serving students.
Offering healthy school meals to all students at no charge will eliminate the costly, time-consuming meal application and verification process and streamline paperwork and reporting requirements. Parents won’t have to worry about complicated meal applications, and school nutrition professionals can focus on nourishing students.
Provide emergency financial relief directly to School Food Authorities (SFAs)
COVID-19 school closures and the higher costs of serving meals during the pandemic have crippled school meal program budgets. A recent SNA survey revealed extensive financial losses, with a harrowing 62% of school nutrition directors anticipating a loss for School Year 2020/21, and an additional 28% of respondents unsure of what to expect. Meal program losses will cut into education budgets, impeding efforts to meet the needs of students and jeopardizing progress in school nutrition programs. While emergency funds provided in the December 2020 stimulus bill will help offset some of the losses accrued last school year, these funds are insufficient to ensure the financial sustainability of school meal programs moving forward.
School Food Authorities (SFAs), commonly referred to as school meal programs, operate on tight budgets funded by cafeteria sales and federal reimbursements for meals served. SFAs receive little more than $3.50 per meal to cover all the food, labor and expenses of assembling a school lunch, including milk, fruit, vegetable, lean protein and grain. To break even, they typically rely on additional revenue from a la carte sales and catering programs.
COVID-19 school closures slashed meal program revenue. USDA data show that between March 2020 and September 2020, SFAs served over 1 billion fewer breakfasts and lunches than in the same time frame in 2019, resulting in a $1.6 billion loss in federal reimbursements. Closures also curbed a la carte and catering sales just as food and labor costs spiked due to supply chain disruptions, high demand for meal packaging, and new Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and cleaning requirements.
Although regulatory waivers allowing all students to receive free meals for SY 2020/21 have helped some schools boost meal participation, data shows many SFAs continue to struggle with lagging meal counts, particularly those serving large numbers of virtual learners. With millions of students still engaged in distance learning, losses are likely to continue to grow. In a September 2020 SNA survey, a harrowing 62% of school nutrition directors anticipated a loss for School Year 2020/21, with an additional 28% of respondents unsure of what to expect. Financial loss was the top concern cited by 93% of respondents in SNA’s survey.
Continued meal program losses will cut into education budgets, limiting funds for teachers, textbooks, technology and other resources to support learning. Losses will also jeopardize efforts to sustain menu enhancements, increase fresh, locally grown options and expand services, such as breakfast in the classroom, afterschool snack and suppers and summer meal programs.
CARES Act relief funds reached few SFAs. While SNA greatly appreciates the emergency funding for SFAs included in the December 2020 stimulus package, these funds only covered some losses incurred from mid March through June 2020. Congress must provide additional emergency relief funds directly to SFAs to offset losses this school year and help them remain financially sustainable to serve students in the future.
Preserve USDA Foods entitlements and State Administrative Expense (SAE) funds, impacted by COVID-19
School meal programs depend heavily on USDA Foods to reduce meal costs and offer students a wide range of U.S. grown foods. USDA Foods entitlements and SAE funds are based on school meal participation data. With participation drastically down due to COVID-19 school closures, Congress should direct USDA to utilize Fiscal Year 2019 participation data when calculating future entitlement and SAE fund values.
School meal programs depend heavily on USDA Foods, or commodities, to reduce meal costs and offerstudents a wide range of U.S. grown foods. Likewise, State agencies, charged with overseeing the administration of child nutrition programs statewide, rely on State Administrative Expense (SAE) funds to conduct reviews and provide training and support to ensure programs are in compliance with federal regulations.
USDA Foods entitlements and SAE funds are calculated based on National School Lunch Program (NSLP) meal participation rates. Since March 2020, USDA has allowed schools to serve meals through the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), which is simpler and safer to operate during the pandemic. As a result, few meals have been served through NSLP during the pandemic, threatening a near total loss of future SAE funds and USDA Foods entitlements if Congress or USDA fail to act. To address the impact of the pandemic, Congress should direct USDA to utilize Fiscal Year 2019 participation data when calculating future USDA Foods entitlement and SAE fund values. Note: On January 15, 2020, USDA issued a waiver allowing the use of pre-pandemic participation data when calculating USDA Foods entitlements for School Year 2021-22, but the waiver does not cover SY 2022-23, as needed, or address SAE funds.
USDA Foods: Supporting Students, Schools and Farmers
The USDA Foods program purchases high-quality domestic agricultural commodities and distributes them to states for use in preparing school meals. USDA Foods include fruits and vegetables, lean protein, low-fat dairy foods, whole grains and oils and they account for approximately 15-20 percent of the foods served as part of school lunch. USDA Foods benefits:
- Students by allowing children to enjoy a wider variety of American-grown foods as part of school meals.
- Schools by reducing their food expenditures, allowing them to manage rising costs and invest limited foodservice dollars into menu improvements for students. Thanks to USDA’s large volume purchasing power, schools can order USDA Foods at a lower price point than in the commercial market, allowing schools to stretch their food dollars further.
- Farmers by increasing purchases of 100% American-grown foods and creating a larger market for high quality surplus agricultural products. School meal programs already face significant financial losses due to the pandemic and cannot afford a cut to their USDA Foods entitlements.
State Administrative Expense Funds: Guaranteeing Oversight of Federal Programs
State agencies serve as a critical link between USDA and child nutrition programs. State level oversight and implementation of the federal child nutrition programs is supported entirely by SAE funds. A loss of future SAE funds would threaten to end oversight of federal child nutrition programs to ensure program compliance and integrity.
Reduce regulatory and administrative burdens
Overly complex federal regulations divert resources from the mission of serving students. They also impede efforts to quickly and creatively respond to student needs in times of emergency. Congress should direct USDA to implement the recommendations of the congressionally-mandated Child Nutrition Reporting Burden Analysis Study. Preserving flexibility on whole grain, sodium and milk regulations will continue to ease menu planning and procurement challenges.
Overly complex federal regulations divert resources from the mission of serving students. Streamlining regulations will minimize costs and allow school nutrition professionals to dedicate more time and resources to directly benefit students, e.g., hosting taste tests, planning nutrition education initiatives and enhancing menus and supporting efficient operations.
When COVID-19 prompted unexpected school closures in March 2020, efforts to quickly mobilize grab-and-go services to maintain consistent student access to healthy school meals were hampered due to complex regulatory challenges. More than 60 regulatory waivers were required to ensure child nutrition programs could safely serve students throughout the pandemic. Excessive rules should not impede efforts to quickly and creatively respond to student needs.
SNA urges Congress to direct USDA to streamline regulatory burdens on child nutrition programs, beginning with implementation of the congressionally-mandated Child Nutrition Reporting Burden Analysis Study recommendations.
Whole Grain, Sodium and Milk Regulations for National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs
Congress and USDA should also preserve flexibility on whole grain, sodium and milk regulations to continue to ease menu planning and procurement challenges for school nutrition programs. This flexibility preserves strict nutrition standards to benefit students, including Target 1 sodium reductions and limits on calories and fat, which ensure school meals do not contribute to obesity. School meals continue to provide students access to a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
School nutrition professionals rely on regulatory flexibility to help them plan nutritious school meals that appeal to students in their communities. Schools struggled to meet the 2012 mandate that all grains must be whole grain rich due to regional and cultural preferences for a few specific items like white rice, tortillas or pasta. Schools also reported widespread concerns about the availability of foods that will meet future sodium limits and are accepted by students. Even the Institute of Medicine warned that meeting later sodium targets in a way that is well accepted by students may not be possible.
These flexibilities will be especially important in SY 2021/22 as COVID-19 related supply chain and economic disruptions will make it even more difficult to order and secure foods that meet highly specialized school nutrition standards. Smaller school districts and those in rural areas with limited purchasing power or access to distribution channels already have few options when selecting menu items. Preserving regulatory flexibility will ease these challenges while ensuring students continue to receive well-balanced nutritious meals.