Hundreds of K-12 operators gathered in Washington, D.C., this week for the School Nutrition Association’s (SNA) Legislative Action Conference.
Throughout the conference’s three days, attendees met with their representatives on Capitol Hill and received updates from the SNA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on universal free meals, the newly proposed school nutrition standards and more.
Here are four takeaways from the conference.
1. Attendees aren’t fans of the proposed nutrition standards
Members of the USDA were in the hot seat Monday morning during a Q & A that discussed the recently proposed updates to the department’s school nutrition standards.
One by one, attendees lined up behind the audience mic to share their questions and criticisms of the proposed changes, which would enact further restrictions on ingredients like sodium and sugar.
Attendees seemed most concerned with the proposed sodium changes, which would require operators to reduce sodium levels in school lunches by 30% over a period of six years and by 20% in school breakfasts over a period of four years.
K-12 operators have struggled to meet even the current standards due to rising prices and supply chain problems. In the SNA’s 2023 School Nutrition Trends Report, a vast majority of K-12 operators (88.8%) said that suppliers not carrying sufficient menu items to meet nutrition standards was a moderate or significant challenge this school year.
USDA Director of School Meals Policy Tina Namian encouraged all attendees to provide feedback on the proposed standards during the public comment period, which runs through April 10.
“We look at every single comment that comes in, and we really do take them into consideration,” she said. “We know that you understand it, you're on the ground doing these programs. Your comments are really important to us, so we do want to hear from you.”
The USDA hopes to issue a final rule on the nutrition standards sometime early next year.
2. Reimbursement rates are a major concern
Operators are worried about meal reimbursement rates not keeping up with the rising costs of labor, ingredients and more.
Nearly all K-12 operators surveyed for the SNA’s 2023 School Nutrition Report (99.2%) are concerned that reimbursement rates may be inadequate when the Keep Kids Fed Act, which has temporarily raised school meal reimbursement rates, expires at the start of July.
The SNA is now pushing for the passage of the Healthy Meals Help Kids Learn Act that was introduced last week by U.S. Representative James P. McGovern.
If passed, the bill would permanently increase the federal reimbursement level for all free, reduced-price and paid-rate school meals by 45 cents for every lunch served and 28 cents for every breakfast served, with a yearly adjustment.
SNA Vice President of Government Affairs and Media Relations Cathy Schuchart urged LAC attendees to bring up the bill when they meet with their representatives on Capitol Hill this week. While she said she doesn’t think it will pass on its own, she believes that adding co-sponsors and garnering support for the legislation will increase the chances it ends up in a bigger bill that is more likely to be passed.
3. The fight for universal free meals is being directed to the states
Federal legislation regarding universal free meals has been stagnant as of late (the last time a federal universal free meals bill was introduced was in 2021), and Schuchart feels it will not be on the docket this year.
“I think it's probably very unlikely that we're going to see a Congress that’s split to talk about universal feeding,” she said. “It's most likely not going to happen.”
Instead, the SNA is encouraging K-12 operators to push for universal free meals at the state level. During a panel on Monday, SNA representatives from California, Colorado, Maine, Pennsylvania and Maryland shared their tips for getting a universal free meals bill to pass in their state or working to get their state lawmakers on board with universal feeding.
While each state approached the path to universal free meals a little differently, each panelist agreed that making connections with other advocates and lawmakers was key to their success.
“It's about the stories you share, it’s about finding those connectors in your state to make things like healthy school meals for all possible, says Molly Brandt, director of nutrition services at Adams 12 Five Star Schools in Thornton, Colo.
4. Child Nutrition Reauthorization is still up in the air
Every five years, Congress can make changes to school feeding programs through the Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR); however, the last time CNR occurred was 13 years ago, with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.
Schuchart doesn’t know if CNR will occur this year and said the SNA is still deciding whether an overhaul of CNR would be in its best interests.
“We will be looking at areas where we can see some success or potential success, and I don't know if it's going to be an overhaul [of] the CNR,” she said. “Maybe we don’t want an overhaul of a CNR, maybe we just want bits and pieces, dribs and drabs, that we think can be very beneficial.”
Congress is also currently working on an overhaul of the Farm Bill, which occurs about every five years as well. While the bill has less to do with school nutrition, the SNA is considering whether there are areas of the bill where it could offer insight.
“There might be something on USDA Foods; there might be something on the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program,” says Schuchart. “Those are some of the things that are sitting within the Farm Bill and might be some things that we want to take a look at as well.”