Executive Summary

Challenges for School Meal Programs

The top 3 challenges for school meal programs are:

  1. Increasing costs – 99.3% (n = 1,313) report moderate or significant challenges
  2. Staff shortages – 90.5% (n = 1,199) report moderate or significant challenges
  3. Menu item shortages – 87.2% (n = 1,152) report moderate or significant challenges
  • Staff shortages: Programs in the Mid-Atlantic FNS region (65.4%, n = 87), programs with free-and-reduced % rates of 65% or more (62.9%, n = 188), and programs with district enrollments over 25,000 students (64.9%, n = 87) reported the highest levels of significant challenges with staff shortages. The severity of reported challenges with staff shortages increased with enrollment size.
  • Unpaid meal charges: Programs offering free meals to all students district-wide reported that unpaid meal debt was not a challenge at a rate almost 10 times higher (72.2%, n = 469) than programs that do not offer free meals to all students district-wide (7.3%, n = 49).
  • Supply chain: Districts with the highest level of free-and-reduced eligibility percentage (65%+) consistently reported the highest levels of significant challenges with procurement processes among all other free-and-reduced percentage categories, including: menu item shortages (40.8% n = 122), late/delayed deliveries (22.1%, n = 66), supplier/distributor cancelling services/contracts (16.7%, n = 50), longer than normal lead times (31.8%, n = 95), and lack of competitive bid responses (33.0%, n = 98).
  • The top 3 most challenging items to procure are:
  • Breakfast items (eg cereals, granola bars, biscuits, pancakes) – 74.8% (n = 894) report moderate or significant challenges
  • Entrees (eg pizza, burritos, chicken, burgers) – 74.2% (n = 889) report moderate or significant challenges
  • Snacks (eg crackers/chips) – 58.4% (n = 699) report moderate or significant challenges
  • In 7 out of 10 menu item categories, there was found to be a statistically significant association between FNS region and the reported severity of difficulty to procure the item category. In all these item categories, respondents from the Southeast FNS region reported having more significant difficulty than the overall sample. Respondents from the Southeast FNS region reported significant difficulty procuring milk (30.1%, n = 58) – almost twice the rate of the overall sample (16.8%, n = 201).

Meal Prices and Unpaid Meal Debt

  • 1% (n = 794) of respondents report their programs offer free school breakfast to all students districtwide (through Community Eligibility Provision or state/local initiatives) and 49.3% (n = 662) offer free school lunch districtwide.
  • A majority of directors with schools offering free meals to all their students report positive benefits after implementing free meals, including increased school meal participation (87.4%, n = 689) and positive social-emotional cafeteria environment (66.2%, n = 522).
  • Overall reported median unpaid meal debt increased by 5.8% ($301.50 per program) from $5,164.00 (n = 847) in November of 2022 to $5,495.00 (n = 808) in November in 2023. This continues the trend of increasing median unpaid meal debt that started before the COVID-19 pandemic: at the end of SY 2017-18 reported median unpaid meal debt was $3,400 (n = 570), end of SY 2016-17 reported median unpaid meal debt was $2,500 (n = 897), and end of SY 2014-15 reported median unpaid meal debt was $2,000 (n = 627).
  • Among the 808 unique school districts that reported unpaid meal debt, total accumulated debt equaled $17.73 million, ranging from $10.00 to $1,000,000. 9% (n = 627) of these programs are not offering free meals to all students, while only 27.4% (n = 181) of these programs are offering free meals to all students district-wide.
  • Free-and-reduced % category and rate of reporting unpaid meal debt have an inverse relationship: the lowest free-and-reduced % programs (<26%) reported unpaid meal debt at the highest rate (75.6%, n = 170) of all free-and-reduced % categories, while the highest free-and-reduced % programs (>65%) reported unpaid meal debt at the lowest rate (25.9%, n = 79) of all free-and-reduced % categories.

Funding and Financial Sustainability

  • The percentages of programs reporting that School Breakfast Program (SBP)/National School Lunch Program (NSLP) reimbursement rates are insufficient to cover the costs of producing meals increased from SY 2022-23 to SY 2023-24, from 54.7% (n = 601) to 60.2% (n = 777) for breakfast, and from 56.6% (n = 620) to 64.4% (n = 833) for lunch.
  • 6% (n = 1,183) of programs report serious or moderate concern regarding the financial sustainability of their school nutrition program three years from now. Programs in the Western FNS region reported the highest level of serious concern (56.4%, n = 97).
  • Supply Chain Assistance (SCA) funds allowed schools to purchase unprocessed or minimally processed domestic foods. By partially offsetting food expenses, programs that accepted SCA) funds reported they were able to invest in program improvements in the following categories at the highest rates:
  • Menu improvement – 62.4%, n = 692
  • Equipment – 56.4%, n = 626
  • Staffing (bonuses, wages, hiring) – 40.1%, n = 445

Federal School Nutrition Standards

  • 4% (n = 1,160) of responding programs report significant or moderate challenges with the availability of foods that meet target 1A sodium limits and are well accepted by students.
  • There are significant concerns regarding proposed school nutrition requirements, specifically:
    • additional sodium limits (3 more 10% reductions for lunch, 2 more 10% reductions for breakfast) – 98.7% (n = 1,270) serious/moderate concern
    • eliminating flavored milk options (grades K–8) – 94.7% (n = 1,219) serious/moderate concern
    • limiting added sugars to a weekly average of less than 10% of calories per meal, in addition to product-based limits – 94.7% (n = 1,215) serious/moderate concern
    • limits on added sugar in milk, yogurt, and cereal – 93.1% (n = 1,195) serious/moderate concern
    • limiting grain-based deserts, including whole-grain granola/cereal/breakfast bars, to no more than 2oz equivalents per week for breakfast – 92.8% (n = 1,193) serious/moderate concern

Menu Trends

  • The top 3 menu changes for next year include:
  • Adding menu choices – 64.6% (n = 868)
  • Increasing locally-grown/raised foods – 55.6% (n = 747)
  • Increasing scratch preparation – 52.6% (n = 706)
  • The top 3 actions to increase student acceptance of nutrition menu options include:
  • Student taste test/sampling – 66.0% (n = 886)
  • Farm to school/School garden initiatives – 39.8% (n = 534)
  • Nutrition education initiatives – 25.8% (n = 347)

Resource Type


Year Added

2024

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