School Nutrition Association releases survey, position paper
|The School Nutrition Association, which represents school food service directors and the companies that make school foods, released a report today, Jan. 11, that finds 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. “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.”
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. For 88.5% respondents, 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, SNA said. Recognizing cost challenges, Congress raised the school year 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. About 80% of respondents 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%).
The survey showed that:
▪ Since universal free meal service expired and schools must require families to complete free and reduced-price meal applications, 90.6% of school meal operators reported a challenge getting families to submit the forms.
▪ 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.
▪ There is a decline in students eating school meals, which SNA says could impact student health and achievement and reduce revenue for school meal programs.
▪ Among programs that now charge for meals, Average Daily Participation dropped by 23.1% for breakfast and 13.2% for lunch (average difference comparing October 2022 and October 2021 ADP).
▪ 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.
SNA’s 2023 position paper supports maintaining current school nutrition standards, “rather than implement additional, unachievable rules,” and urges Congress to offer healthy school meals for all students at no charge.