School Nutrition Association continues push for universal free meals in 2024 position paper

The organization also advocated for no additional restrictions to the USDA’s school nutrition standards and to raise federal meal reimbursements.
Student holds lunch tray
The School Nutrition Association has released its 2024 Position Paper which once again calls on Congress to implement universal free meals. | Photo: Shiutterstock

The School Nutrition Association (SNA) is calling on Congress to implement free meals for all students, halt further restrictions to the school nutrition standards and raise federal meal reimbursements by 40 cents per lunch and 15 cents per breakfast.

Those requests are outlined in the SNA’s 2024 position paper, which argues that their implementation will help school nutrition professionals as they continue to face a myriad of challenges left over from the pandemic.

In a new survey by the SNA, which included responses from 1,343 school meal program directors from across the country, almost all (99.3%) respondents said that increasing costs are a challenge and just 17% of respondents reported that the current reimbursement rate is sufficient to cover the cost of preparing a lunch. In addition, 91.6% of respondents were concerned about the financial sustainability of their program in the next three years.

The survey also showed a majority of respondents (87.2%) are still dealing with procurement challenges.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is scheduled to release a final rule on its proposed updated School Nutrition Standards this April which could place further restrictions on things like sodium in school meals. Most survey respondents (79.3%) reported that suppliers are not carrying sufficient menu items needed to meet the current nutrition standards and 90.4% respondents said that have experienced challenges with the availability of foods that meet current Target 1A sodium limits and are well accepted by students.

In addition, the survey revealed that school nutrition programs who are able to offer free meals to all students experienced a number of benefits.

A majority (87.4%) of respondents, for example, reported free meal service increased school meal participation and 66.2% of respondents noted a more positive social-emotional cafeteria environment when they began offering free meals to all students.

Survey respondents who still charged for meals, however, experienced challenges. A majority of those respondents (92.8%) noted challenges with unpaid meal debt and 90.1% of respondents reported issues with getting families to fill out free and reduced-price meal application forms.

“Research shows students eat their healthiest meals at school, and school nutrition programs need Congress’ support to sustain that achievement. Inadequate funds and overly restrictive rules will soon cripple school meal programs,” said Chris Derico, president of the School Nutrition Association, in a statement. “Federal reimbursements must account for the uniquely high cost of operating K-12 programs, which must procure more expensive low-sodium and whole grain foods to meet strict nutrition standards. Meanwhile, we believe all students deserve equal access to nutritious meals at school, and in schools that must charge for meals, we see inequities for children as well as unpaid meal debt increasing financial losses.”

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



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