K-12 operators throughout the country say they will still be dealing with significant financial and operational challenges in the coming school year, according to a new survey by the School Nutrition Association (SNA).
The SNA’s Back to School 2021 survey asked operators at 1,368 U.S. school districts this past spring to share their thoughts and concerns about the new school year.
An overwhelming majority of respondents (97%) say they’re concerned about pandemic-related supply chain disruptions, with 65% of those respondents saying it is a serious concern. Staffing shortages were also top of of mind, with 90% citing it as a concern. In addition, low meal participation was listed as a worry by 82% of respondents.
Over three-quarters (86%) of respondents are concerned about their financial stability this upcoming year. Nearly half (48%) anticipate a net loss for the 2020-2021 school year, with an additional 20% saying they’re unsure of what to expect. For those expecting a loss, only 32% anticipate having enough reserves to cover that loss.
In order to address financial concerns, 71% of respondents said they’ve limited menu choices and variety, 46% have reduced staffing, 13% have reduced staff benefits or salaries, and 42% have deferred equipment investments, while 40% have delayed program expansions or improvements.
A majority of respondents say they are also concerned about regulatory challenges, especially meeting Target 2 sodium limits. Over 95% of respondents said that challenges they face in meeting those limits include student acceptance of reduced-sodium foods, negative impact on meal participation, product or ingredient availability, higher costs and naturally occurring sodium in foods such as milk, low-fat cheese and meat.
According to the survey, just 26% of school nutrition directors say their programs are prepared to meet Target 2 limits and only 11% anticipate being able to meet the Final Target, which is scheduled to go into effect next July. Almost all (97%) respondents are concerned about the impact of Final Target limits on their programs, with 74% of those saying they are extremely concerned.
In addition, survey respondents had concerns about meeting the mandate for whole-grain rich products. Almost all (98%) of school nutrition directors surveyed said that student acceptance of whole-grain foods and a negative impact on student participation are the top challenges in meeting the whole-grain requirement. Higher costs of whole grains, recipe functionality and product or ingredient availability were also listed as challenges.
In order to help address these obstacles, the SNA has been calling on Congress and the USDA to make universal free meals permanent, to delay Target 2 mandates until July 2024, to eliminate Final Target sodium limits and to restore the mandate that half of all grains offered with school meals be whole-grain rich, rather than 100%.