The School Nutrition Association (SNA) Back to School 2021 Survey of 1,368 school meal program directors nationwide reveals serious financial, regulatory and operational challenges for the upcoming school year. While the USDA recently extended key COVID-19 waivers through the 2021-22 school year, including the option for schools to offer free meals to all students, respondents to SNA’s survey noted significant concerns for the upcoming school year in the areas of procurement, staffing, meal participation, changes to traditional meal service systems, serving distance learners and meeting school nutrition standards.
On the positive side, survey respondents noted significant benefits associated with free meal service, with large majorities reporting increases in student access to meals, meal participation rates and equity among students along with decreases in unpaid meal debt for families and stigma for low-income students. To follow up on that, SNA is urging Congress to permanently offer free school meals for all students.
A particular concern expressed in the survey involves future sodium regulations. While schools significantly reduced the sodium in school meals to meet Target 1 limits and are working toward Target 2 limits, only 26% of respondents said that their programs are prepared to meet Target 2 limits and only 11% anticipate being able to meet the Final Target, which is scheduled to take effect in July 2022. As a result, 97% express concern, and 74% are extremely concerned, about the impact of Final Target limits on their programs.
“School meal programs, which are critical to the health and success of millions of America’s students, face an uncertain future following the pandemic,” said SNA President Reggie Ross about the results. “Congress must act to ensure these programs are financially sustainable to benefit future generations. With research showing children receive their healthiest meals at school, Congress and USDA must focus on supporting meal participation rather than mandating severe sodium reductions that will result in fewer students eating healthy meals and further financial losses for school meal programs.”
Among specific results from the survey are the following…
• 97% of respondents are concerned about continued pandemic supply chain disruptions, with 65% citing this as a serious concern;
• 90% worry about staff shortages;
• 86% ranked financial sustainability of school meal programs as a concern;
• 82% are concerned about low meal participation
Limitations such as staff, infrastructure and schedule constraints on scratch cooking was also cited by nearly 90% of school nutrition directors as a challenge and large majorities also reported concerns about pandemic meal service modifications, barriers to serving distance learners and meeting school nutrition standards.
Fiscal issues were a major concern as school meal programs have always operated on extremely tight budgets, a situation exacerbated by pandemic-related losses and rising costs.
USDA data shows that in the first full year of the pandemic—between March 2020 and February 2021—schools served 2.2 billion fewer meals compared to the prior year, equating to a $2.3 billion loss in federal revenue.
As a result, the survey found that nearly half (48%) of school meal programs anticipate a net loss for the 2020-21 school year, with an additional 20% unsure of what to expect. Of those expecting a loss, only 32% anticipate having sufficient reserves to cover it.
Among steps taken to address financial concerns during the pandemic were limiting menu choices and variety (71% of respondents), reducing staff (46%), deferring equipment investments (42%), delaying program expansions/improvements (40%) and reducing staff benefits/salaries (13%).
The impact sometimes extended to general district budgets, with nearly 30% of survey respondents saying they have requested district general funds to cover their losses. SNA is urging Congress to provide additional relief funds to keep school meal programs financially sustainable.
Regulatory issues are complicating the financial picture, respondents noted, with more than 95% citing student acceptance of reduced sodium foods as a challenge potentially impacting meal participation, while nearly 70% cited as significant challenges such sodium-related factors as sodium levels in condiments, low-sodium product or ingredient availability/cost and how to deal with naturally occurring sodium in foods such as milk, low-fat cheese and meat.
In addition, the current mandate that all grains offered with school meals must be whole grain rich is also a challenge for nearly 70% of school meal programs. Student acceptance of whole grain foods and the negative impact on student participation were the top challenges cited by virtually all (98%) responding school nutrition directors, closely followed by the higher cost of whole grains, recipe functionality and product or ingredient availability.
USDA waivers allow states to provide targeted flexibility for school meal programs struggling to meet sodium and other meal pattern mandates through SY 2021/22. Nevertheless, SNA is urging Congress and USDA to delay Target 2 mandates until July 2024, eliminate Final Target sodium limits and restore the mandate that half of all grains offered with school meals be whole grain rich.