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School Nutrition Association advocates for universal free meals, additional funding in 2023 position paper

Rising costs plus labor and supply chain disruptions make it difficult to run school nutrition programs, the SNA says, adding that programs will be "financially unsustainable" if higher meal reimbursement rates expire this summer as planned.
Lunch trays on a cafeteria table
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The School Nutrition Association (SNA) is once again calling on Congress to increase federal meal reimbursements and implement free meals for all students.

Price increases plus labor and supply chain disruptions continue to wreak havoc on school nutrition programs, making it difficult for them to operate effectively, the SNA said in its 2023 Position Paper. It asserts that increasing meal reimbursement rates while providing meals to all students free of charge will help ensure the stability of school nutrition programs nationwide.

“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 in a statement. "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." 

In a recent survey of school nutrition directors conducted by the SNA, nearly all respondents (99.8%) listed rising costs as a challenge. Despite receiving higher meal reimbursement funds due to the Keep Kids Fed Act, 56.6% of respondents said these increased reimbursements do not cover the cost of a school lunch, while 54.7% said it doesn’t cover the cost of a school breakfast.

Almost all respondents (99.2%) said they’re also concerned about covering costs when the higher federal reimbursement rates from Keep Kids Fed expire this summer. The paper urges Congress to make the increased rates permanent to prevent school nutrition programs from suffering financially.

“School meal programs will become financially unsustainable,” the paper states. “Losses will cut into education budgets, impeding efforts to meet the needs of students and jeopardizing progress in school nutrition programs.”

The 2023 paper also advocates for bringing back universal free meals. After the expiration of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) child nutrition waiversthat allowed schools across the nation to feed kids for free, many schools had to revert to charging students for meals, causing an accumulation of meal debt. Almost all survey respondents (96.3%) said that unpaid meal charges are a challenge this school year, and 66.8% report an increase in stigma toward low-income students.

Over 90% of respondents say they’re facing challenges with menu item availability, discontinued items and supply chain shortages. A majority (88.8%) say they’re also having trouble obtaining menu items that meet current nutrition standards put forth by the USDA, such as whole-grain, low-sodium and low-fat products. As a result, the paper calls on the USDA to maintain current nutrition standards rather than implement stricter requirements later this year.

The paper also asks for a reduction in regulatory and administrative burdens, directing Congress to implement the recommendations listed in the USDA’s Child Nutrition Burden Analysis Study and the forthcoming USDA Foods in Schools.

SNA members will meet with members of Congress in March to discuss the propositions outlined in the paper.

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