In a speech at the School Nutrition Association (SNA) Legislative Action Conference (LAC) in Washington, D.C. on March 5th, USDA Deputy Secretary Steve Censky announced two new efforts to provide states and school districts with more flexibility and support to operate their school meal programs more efficiently.
One provides relief for school districts with less than 2,500 students in the area of finding qualified applicants to head their school meal programs, while the other is designed to make applying for free and reduced-priced meals easier for families.
In 2015, USDA had established education and training requirements for nutrition professionals as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, but it unduly stressed some small school districts, which faced challenges finding applicants qualified under the law to direct their school meal operations. The proposal announced at LAC is designed to provide relief for such districts, Censky said.
“Small and rural school districts will no longer have to overlook qualified food service professionals because of one-size-fits-all standards that don’t meet their needs," he noted. “We trust our local partners to hire talented school nutrition program directors who will manage the meal service in a way that protects the health and well-being of students.”
In the area of streamlining the subsidized school meal application process, USDA rolled out a suite of customizable resources such as support for online applications, evidenced-based materials and best practices designed to simplify the process for families and so ensure that eligible children receive free and reduced-priced meals.
“USDA’s goal to do right and feed everyone starts with our children,” said Censky. “We are committed to giving states and school districts more tools and options to build a bright, self-sufficient future for America’s children through well-managed school meal programs.”
As part of this package, USDA is offering guidance to help schools utilize its open-source online school meal application model, which is designed to be customer-friendly in order to reduce the common mistakes families make when applying for free or reduced-priced school meals.
“These tools are the benchmark for future innovation and give schools 21st century resources and strategies to run efficient food service operations, now and into the future,” Censky said. “Schools can ensure the proper use of funds for feeding students in need, protecting the taxpayer dollar through high integrity programs.”
USDA also invited private industry software developers to join schools in delivering customer service by helping them tailor their own applications.
Censky’s announcement at LAC is the latest in a series of recent USDA actions designed to expand flexibility and ease challenges for school meal programs. Other actions include loosening some requirements in areas like milk, whole grains and sodium limits.