As part of a $3 billion investment package in agriculture, animal health and nutrition, the USDA announced that it will provide up to $1.5 billion to provide assistance to help schools respond to food and labor supply chain disruptions designed to support procurement of agricultural commodities and enable USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) and Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) to enhance the toolbox for school nutrition professionals to ensure students have reliable access to healthy meals. The announcement builds on the range of work that USDA has been doing to address ongoing issues school districts face to serve students healthy and nutritious meals.
“Since the start of the public health crisis, school nutrition professionals have worked tirelessly to continue to serve nutritious meals,” USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said in making the announcement. “USDA has remained steadfast in its commitment to getting them the support they need to successfully operate meal programs amidst changing circumstances. Studies show school meals are the healthiest meals children receive in a day, which is why we must support schools any way we can to get those nutritious meals to our nation’s school children.”
In its fact sheet accompanying the announcement, USDA noted that “some schools are experiencing challenges purchasing and obtaining food for their meal programs and is taking swift action to ensure that doesn’t interfere with their ability to serve meals to the children in their care. The department is actively engaging with partners to best leverage existing options for addressing potential supply chain issues—such as emergency procurement, higher meal reimbursement rates, and targeted waivers of certain meal standard requirements—and assess any additional needs.” It noted that it had already recently taken action to ensure schools are not penalized if they can’t meet meal standards due to supply chain issues.
These moves follow others USDA has undertaken over the pandemic period to support school meal programs, such as providing a suite of flexibilities for the entire 2021-2022 school year that allow schools to leverage the Seamless Summer Option to serve meals at no cost while receiving the higher Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) reimbursement rate to cover increased operating costs.
“USDA is taking an all-hands-on-deck approach to supporting the school meal programs, taking action to help schools get out in front of possible challenges and addressing other issues that arise from all angles and with all available resources,” said Vilsack. “We are committed to the program’s success, and confident in its ability to serve children well.”