Throughout the pandemic, school nutrition and community-based providers have worked tirelessly to ensure kids have access to healthy meals. Just last year, school nutrition providers served over 5 billion meals to kids, standing in school parking lots during inclement weather and bundling and delivering food to meet kids where they were.
These operators have been able to meet this challenge thanks to the flexibilities provided by Congress and the USDA that have allowed school and community providers to be nimble and meet kids where they are to ensure they are not missing meals and the nutrition that keeps them healthy and strong.
School nutrition staff have been able to continue serving school meals because the waivers acknowledge typical operations used pre-pandemic may not be an option due to social distancing requirements, students that may be virtual learning or increased disruptions when trying to obtain products because of the current supply chain challenges.
Today, the supply chain disruptions are presenting persistent obstacles for school food service directors, and the flexibilities provided by USDA are set to end this school year unless Congress takes action.
No Kid Hungry and the School Nutrition Association (SNA) convened a panel of school nutrition directors to explore how supply chain disruptions have impacted school meals and the urgent need to continue the USDA flexibilities so they can continue to provide healthy meals to kids. You can watch the panel here.
According to a new SNA survey, the biggest challenges school nutrition staff are facing include shortages of menu items, not enough supplies, and staff shortages. Panelists agreed with the findings, and through the panel discussion, they provided a window into what it’s like to be a school nutrition director.
“You know, every week, we get a new product that comes in that somebody says, well, I'm sorry but we're having to go up on cost or I'm sorry this item is not available anymore,” said Beth Wallace, executive director of food and nutrition services at Jefferson County Public Schools in Colorado.
Despite these challenges, school nutrition staff remain committed to feeding kids healthy meals. They underscored how the flexibilities provided through nationwide child nutrition waivers issued by the USDA have been essential in reaching kids where they are, especially during times of quarantine and the summer months.
Some of these flexibilities allow parents and guardians to pick up meals for students and for schools to benefit from a higher reimbursement rate on the meals they are serving. A notable option, the non-congregate feeding waiver, has allowed directors to serve meals even if students aren’t all gathered together, such as allowing meal pick-up options for students learning virtually or implementing grab-and-go meals for students in school.
“The non-congregate waiver has really supported us, especially at the beginning of the pandemic. We were able to dispatch buses into the neighborhood and provide bundles to the students,” said Dimitra Barrios, director of food service at Ridley School District in Pennsylvania.
In addition to allowing schools to be nimble, these waivers also provide certainty for these operators while school nutrition departments navigate supply chain challenges, plan for the 2022-23 school year, and seek financial stability during this time.
Most schools are already planning for the summer meal program and the following school year. Having the flexibilities so they can respond immediately to the current environment and seamlessly deliver meals to kids is what will provide a sense of “normal” as kids return school.
Warren DeShields, director of food service at Bridgeton Public Schools in New Jersey, talked about utilizing the increased reimbursement rates provided by the waivers. This allows schools to benefit from more dollars per meal than the typical rate. The increased reimbursement rate supports financial sustainability and can be used to tackle increased costs due to supply chain disruptions or increase pay to attract and maintain staff. “If that option goes away, I don’t know how we’re going to stay afloat,” he said.
“We have been forced to pay higher costs on almost everything that we’re purchasing, and we continue to receive increased notifications from our manufacturers. Shortage is an issue, so it’s not going away anytime in the near future; within the next two years, that increase in reimbursement rate will help us,” Barrios added. If waivers are allowed to expire, these challenges will only be exacerbated.
To ensure certainty for school nutrition providers, Congress should extend waiver authority for the USDA. This extension would allow USDA to continue to implement necessary flexibilities and let school nutrition directors have a glimpse of what they’re working with beyond the current waivers’ expiration in June 2022, including reimbursement rates.
“We should acknowledge and appreciate the actions taken by the USDA and Congress, but more must be done. As a result of nutrition waivers, more kids have been able to reach meals. As summer approaches, we need to be sure schools and community organizations can continue to feed kids with the flexibilities that allow them to meet kids as they are,” said Monica Gonzales, director of federal government relations for No Kid Hungry.
The work schools and community-based organizations have done for nearly two years to ensure kids get the food they need has been remarkable—and necessary—as the pandemic has wreaked havoc on our country. Yet, schools should not be tasked with filling the gaps alone. Congress and the USDA must work together to guarantee schools and community-based organizations are equipped with the tools they need to feed kids, especially during these uncertain times.
“We will struggle tremendously if we don’t know in the very near future what our plan for the next year is going to look like because the past two years we’ve been operating so differently,” said Barrios, “It’s going to take a tremendous amount of planning, and we are just going to need as much time as possible.”