Tightening school nutrition standards, uncertain reimbursement frustrate stakeholders, reveal opportunities for manufacturers

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty/	SDI Productions
Source: Getty/ SDI Productions

Related tags school lunch Food for kids Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act school meals

Most schools nationwide are struggling to source sufficient options that meet current government-imposed nutrition standards and which students will eat – a problem that could worsen if the US Department of Agriculture imposes stricter, long-term nutrition rules, as expected later this year, warns the School Nutrition Association.

As such, the non-profit is asking Congress to maintain the current school nutrition standards​, many of which were eased temporarily in the face of supply chain and other challenges that began at the start of the pandemic or which were rolled back by the Trump Administration.

Either way, the struggles underscore an opportunity for food and beverage manufacturers to innovate and offer a stable supply of products that meet current and potential future standards.

Lingering supply chain challenges, budget restrictions worry nutrition professionals

According to the School Nutrition Association’s most recent annual survey of 1,230 school meal program directors nationwide, more than 90% of respondents said they faced menu shortages, discontinued menu items and supply shortages in the past year, and 88.8% reported challenges sourcing sufficient menu items that meet current school nutrition standards, including whole-grain, low-sodium and low-fat food and beverages.

The top three most challenging items to procure, according to the survey, are breakfast items (cereals, granola bars, biscuits and pancakes), entrees (such as pizza, burritos, chicken and burgers) and snacks (including crackers and chips).

Many school nutrition professionals worry that sourcing these items will become even more difficult as stricter standards are phased in

Last February, the US Department of Agriculture announced​ beginning this academic year it would reinstate school nutrition standards and longer-term goals established in 2012 during the Obama Administration.

This includes requirements that at least 80% of the grains schools offer weekly must be whole grain-rich, and that school and child-care providers offer low-fat and non-fat unflavored milk. Schools can temporarily offer low-fat flavored milk as they navigate supply challenges.

Last year, USDA agreed to delay an additional 10% decrease in sodium levels allowed at lunch until the 2023-2024 academic year – arguing that a staggered rollout of stricter nutrition standards would help schools transition and give them time to adjust menus and source products and ingredients.

SNA, however, argues delaying implementation by a year is not enough. In its recently released 2023 Position Paper it argues that “USDA must support school nutrition professionals as they work to maintain current standards”​ by delaying the implementation of “additional, unachievable rules.”

The most challenging changes to the nutrition standards are the sodium limits​, which 97.8% of respondents to SNA’s survey said they are moderately or seriously concerned about meeting while still providing products that students will eat.

A close second are new limits on added sugar that are under consideration ​with 94.4% of respondents noting they are moderately or seriously concerned about the change.

Finally, 88.4% of respondents said they are moderately or seriously concerned about a potential mandate that all grains offered with school meals be whole grain rich, which is included in a proposed rule to update federal school nutrition standards.

Labor challenges, budget shortfalls stymie efforts to meet nutrition standards

The association also argues that labor challenges further compound schools’ struggles to meet stricter nutrition standards because most schools don’t have enough staff to cook food from scratch – a strategy for reducing sodium and meeting stricter nutrition guidelines.

According to the survey, 59.4% of respondents said staff shortages were a “significant challenge” and an additional 33.5% listed them as a moderate challenge.

“As district enrolment increase, so does the percentage of school nutrition programs identifying staff shortages as a significant challenge,”​ according to the survey, which found 43.4% of districts with fewer than 1,000 students reported staff shortages as a significant challenge. This goes up for schools with 25,000 or more students, 79.1% of which report staff shortages are a significant challenge.

Also compounding concerns about sourcing sufficient appropriate meal items are worries that reimbursement will not cover the full cost of items – a fear that is prompting SNA to ask Congress to make permanent the reimbursement rate increases in the Keep Kids Fed Act.

“Despite additional Keep Kids Fed Act funds, 56.6% reported the higher reimbursement rate fails to cover the cost of producing school lunch; 54.7% cited the school breakfast rate as inadequate. Nearly all respondents (99.2%) expressed concern about reimbursement adequacy when these additional funds expire in July 2023,”​ SNA notes in its 2023 position paper.

School lunch debt once again is mounting

In addition to securing additional reimbursement, SNA urges Congress to allow schools to once again offer all students meals free of charge – a strategy employed during the pandemic but recently repealed as perceptions of the threat of COVID-19 have eased.

The return to a tiered payment system for school meals also has increased the stigma low-income students face and unpaid meal charges or debt, which SNA argues is a burden on families and school district budgets.

“SNA supports offering free school meals to all students and proposals to advance this goal, including expanding the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), eliminating the reduced-price category and making permanent the Direct Certification with Medicaid pilot program,”​ the non-profit argues in its position paper.

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