National supply chain disruptions and labor shortages have severely impacted the financial and operational sustainability of school meal programs in every geographic region and all district sizes. SNA’s November 2021 Supply Chain Survey found virtually all programs report shortages of menu items, supplies and packaging, items being discontinued by manufacturers, higher costs compared to contracted bids and staff shortages. Meanwhile, the spread of new COVID-19 variants continues to impact school meal service, operations and staffing.
Schools consistently serve students healthy meals, but these disruptions leave short-staffed school nutrition teams scrambling to place additional orders for substitute menu items, find new vendors when orders are shorted, canceled or delayed, and even make trips to local stores to purchase necessary food and supplies. Schools have been forced to make last-minute changes to the menu based on availability and reduce the number of choices in the cafeteria.
School nutrition directors are already planning menus, writing bids and placing orders for SY 2022/23. With no sign of disruptions easing, uncertainty regarding waiver status and reimbursement rates is hampering the integral bid process. Meal programs and their suppliers urgently need the assurance of waiver extensions through SY 2022/23 and the security of continued regulatory flexibility to support meal service for students. Especially crucial are:
- Meal pattern waivers: More than 96% of school meal programs cited challenges with suppliers not carrying sufficient menu items needed to meet nutrition standards, such as whole-grain, low-sodium and low-fat options. Food companies and distributors have streamlined offerings and reduced the geographic areas they serve, leaving many meal programs without access to foods that meet highly specialized meal pattern requirements.
- Seamless Summer Option, Non-Congregate Meal Service, Meal Time and Parent Pick Up waivers: The spread of COVID-19 variants require schools to maintain grab-and-go options, social distancing protocols and meal services for quarantined/remote learners. Meal programs need regulatory flexibility to serve all their students safely and quickly adapt operations. Labor shortages and supply chain disruptions have pushed school nutrition professionals to a breaking point. Allowing schools to continue serving all students without having to verify free meal eligibility will ease burdens on school nutrition staff, speed up meal distribution, improving safety for students and staff, support economically struggling families, and ensure students are fueled for learning.
- Summer Food Service Reimbursement Rates waiver: Recognizing rising pandemic costs, USDA is reimbursing schools for free meals at the higher Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) rate this school year. However, in SNA’s November 2021 survey, only about half of school meal program directors indicated these reimbursement rates sufficiently covered the costs of producing school breakfast and lunch, including food, labor, supplies and pandemic costs. Returning to NSLP/SBP reimbursement rates would increase meal program losses and cut into education budgets, impeding efforts to meet the needs of students and jeopardizing progress in school nutrition programs.