Supply chain challenges and difficulties stemming from the expiration of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) waivers issued during the pandemic continued to impact school nutrition operators over the past school year, according to a new study released by the USDA.
The survey showed that 97% of operators said they were still experiencing one or more supply chain-related issues in the first quarter of the 2022-2023 school year. Those at larger school districts were also more likely to report that they were having supply chain-related difficulties.
Many of the other challenges operators encountered during that time were related to the expiration of the USDA waivers that allowed schools to feed all students for free. Just under half (47%) of operators said that they faced confusion from parents and guardians related to meal service, payment and operations, and 42% said that meal debt was a challenge.
Difficulties with ordering and preparing the right amount of food as well as fewer parents and guardians filling out meal applications were also identified as challenges by 38% and 35% of operators, respectively. In addition, 42% of operators said they were facing reduced student participation.
The study surveyed school nutrition operators between Nov. 22, 2022, to Jan. 6, 2023, through a 20-minute online questionnaire.
Its findings reflect those of a similar study by the School Nutrition Association (SNA) earlier this year that surveyed school nutrition operators regarding their current obstacles. In that study, increased costs, staff shortages and menu item shortages were listed as the top three challenges impacting operators.
Some data points in the USDA study trended in the right direction. Sixty-one percent of operators said they were experiencing increased staff stress or workload during the 2022-2023 school year, down from the 77% who said the same the year prior.
Fewer operators also listed difficulty complying with meal pattern requirements as a challenge (24% in 2022-2023 versus 58% in 2021-2022).