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2023 Position Paper calls for funding and free meals for all students
ARLINGTON, Va. – A School Nutrition Association (SNA) survey report released January 11, 2023, found critical economic and regulatory challenges threaten the sustainability of school meal programs. To ensure these programs remain viable to benefit students long-term, SNA’s 2023 Position Paper urges Congress to permanently increase federal reimbursements, allow schools to offer all students free school meals and maintain current school nutrition standards.
“School meal programs are at a tipping point as rising costs, persistent supply chain issues and labor shortages jeopardize their long-term sustainability,” said SNA President Lori Adkins, MS, SNS, CHE. “Congress has an opportunity to protect this critical lifeline by making reimbursement increases permanent and allowing us to offer free meals to ensure all students are nourished during the school day.”
Research shows school meals support student health and academic achievement by improving children’s diets and combatting hunger.
SNA’s 2023 School Nutrition Trends Report reflects survey responses of 1,230 school meal program directors nationwide. Increasing costs was the top challenge cited by virtually all (99.8%) respondents. 88.5% indicated costs are a significant challenge.
School meal programs are expected to be self-sustaining, covering their expenses with federal reimbursements and cafeteria sales. Meal program losses cut into education budgets, limiting funds for teachers, textbooks and technology. Recognizing cost challenges, Congress raised the School Year (SY) 2022/23 federal school meal reimbursement rates by 40 cents per lunch and 15 cents per breakfast as part of the bipartisan Keep Kids Fed Act.
- Nearly all (99.2%) expressed concern about the adequacy of reimbursement rates when these additional funds expire in July 2023. 80.7% expressed serious concerns.
- Despite these additional funds, a majority of respondents indicated the higher reimbursement rate fails to cover the cost of producing school lunch (56.6%) and breakfast (54.7%).
To protect the viability of school meal programs and their work to meet students’ nutritional needs, SNA’s 2023 Position Paper urges Congress to make permanent the Keep Kids Fed Act’s increased reimbursements.
Loss of Free School Meals
Pandemic waivers allowed all schools to offer free meals to all students. Since waivers expired, free meal service has continued in select states and in high-poverty schools enrolled in Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). However, most meal programs now require families to complete free and reduced-price meal applications, and non-eligible students must pay for meals.
Unfortunately, 90.6% of programs that must collect meal applications reported a challenge getting families to submit the forms. School nutrition directors reported a wide range of other negative impacts from the loss of free school meals.
Among programs that charge for meals:
- 96.3% reported unpaid meal charges/debt is a challenge. 65.4% said debt is a significant challenge.
- Among the 847 districts that reported the amount of their current debt, total accumulated unpaid meal debt exceeded $19 million.
- Per district debt varied widely, ranging from $15 to $1.7 million.
- 66.8% reported an increase in stigma for low-income students, who often depend on school meals as a key source of nutrition.
The survey also revealed a decline in students eating school meals which could impact student health and achievement and reduce revenue for school meal programs. Among programs that now charge for meals, Average Daily Participation (ADP) dropped by 23.1% for breakfast and 13.2% for lunch (average difference comparing Oct. 2022 and Oct. 2021 ADP).
To support student success, SNA’s 2023 Position Paper urges Congress to offer healthy school meals for all students at no charge.
Long-term Supply Chain & Nutrition Standard Challenges
Persistent national labor shortages and supply chain kinks had a lasting impact on the K-12 foodservice industry, limiting manufacturers’ and distributors’ capacity to produce and carry foods that meet highly specialized school nutrition standards. In 2023, USDA is expected to propose stricter, long-term nutrition rules. However, the survey reveals:
- More than 90% of respondents face challenges with menu item shortages, discontinued menu items and supply shortages.
- 88.8% reported challenges obtaining sufficient menu items (e.g. whole-grain, low-sodium, low-fat options) to meet current standards.
- 97.8% are concerned about the availability of foods that meet the July 2023 transitional sodium limits and are acceptable to students.
- 92.9% of school nutrition programs are challenged by staff shortages which can limit efforts to increase scratch cooking, considered a key strategy for further sodium reduction.
With no end in sight to supply chain and labor challenges, a majority of respondents also indicated serious concerns about proposals to establish long-term standards that exceed transitional sodium limits, mandate that all grains offered with school meals be whole grain rich and limit added sugar.
Research shows students eat their healthiest meals at school thanks to current standards requiring school meals to include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and low-fat milk. To keep students eating healthy school meals, SNA’s 2023 Position Paper supports maintaining current school nutrition standards rather than implementing additional, unachievable rules.
In March, school nutrition professionals from across the country will meet with their Members of Congress to discuss SNA’s 2023 Position Paper as part of the 51st annual Legislative Action Conference (LAC).
About School Nutrition Association:
The School Nutrition Association (SNA) is a national, non-profit professional organization representing 50,000 school nutrition professionals across the country. Founded in 1946, SNA and its members are dedicated to making healthy school meals and nutrition education available to all students. For more information on school meals, visit www.SchoolNutrition.org/SchoolMeals.