The School Nutrition Association (SNA) 2023 School Nutrition Trends Report released Jan. 11 found critical economic and regulatory challenges threatening the sustainability of school meal programs, with increasing costs, staff shortages and menu item shortages topping the list of challenges. In response, SNA’s 2023 Position Paper urges Congress to permanently increase federal reimbursements, allow schools to offer all students free school meals and maintain current school nutrition standards.
“School meal programs are at a tipping point as rising costs, persistent supply chain issues and labor shortages jeopardize their long-term sustainability," says SNA President Lori Adkins. "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."
The 2023 School Nutrition Trends Report reflects survey responses of 1,230 school meal program directors nationwide, and increasing costs was the top challenge cited by virtually all (99.8%) respondents, with 88.5% indicated costs are a significant challenge.
While Congress had raised the federal school meal reimbursement rates for the 2022-23 school year by 40 cents per lunch and 15 cents per breakfast, a majority of respondents indicated the higher reimbursement rate fails to cover the cost of producing school lunch (56.6%) and breakfast (54.7%) and nearly all (99.2%) expressed concern about the adequacy of reimbursement rates when these additional funds expire in July 2023, with 80.7% expressing serious concerns. SNA’s 2023 Position Paper urges Congress to make permanent the increased reimbursements.
Since the pandemic waivers that allowed all schools to offer free meals to all students expired, free meal service has continued in select states and in high-poverty schools enrolled in Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), but most meal programs now require families to complete free and reduced-price meal applications, and non-eligible students must pay for meals. This has led to difficulties as 90.6% of programs that must collect meal applications reported a challenge getting families to submit the forms.
School nutrition directors also reported a wide range of other negative impacts from the loss of free school meals. For instance, 96.3% reported unpaid meal charges/debt is a challenge, with 65.4% saying it is a significant challenge. Among the 847 districts that reported the amount of their current debt, the total accumulated unpaid meal debt exceeded $19 million, with individual district totals ranging from $15 to $1.7 million.
In addition, 66.8% reported an increase in stigma for low-income students, and the survey also revealed a decline in students eating school meals, with Average Daily Participation (ADP) dropping by 23.1% for breakfast and 13.2% for lunch between Oct. 2021 and Oct. 2022 among programs that now charge for meals.
Persistent national labor shortages and supply chain kinks have also had a lasting impact on the K-12 foodservice industry, limiting manufacturers’ and distributors’ capacity to produce and carry foods that meet highly specialized school nutrition standards.
While USDA is expected to propose stricter, long-term nutrition rules this year, SNA’s survey found more than 90% of respondents saying that they face challenges with menu item shortages, discontinued menu items and supply shortages, with 88.8% reporting challenges obtaining sufficient menu items such as whole-grain, low-sodium and low-fat options to meet current standards. Also, a nearly unanimous 97.8% are concerned about the availability of foods that meet the July 2023 transitional sodium limits and are acceptable to students.
In addition, 92.9% of school nutrition programs report that they are challenged by staff shortages, which can limit efforts to increase scratch cooking, considered a key strategy for further sodium reduction. With no end in sight to supply chain and labor challenges, a majority of respondents also indicated serious concerns about proposals to establish long-term standards that exceed transitional sodium limits, mandate that all grains offered with school meals be whole grain rich, and limit added sugar.