At the start of the pandemic, federal funding assistance was given to school districts around the country. This allowed much-needed flexibility in providing meals to students in various learning environments. Going into the 2021-2022 school year, that aid was extended to help schools work around a new set of challenges. Supply chain issues have been at the top stressor in school nutrition, with labor shortages coming in close second. Congress recently passed the Keep Kids Fed Act, extending the program through the summer and increasing federal reimbursements for every school lunch and school breakfast. As a school nutrition director, you’re working hard to stay informed on the evolving changes so that you can plan ahead.
Rising Costs, Low Supply, Labor Shortage
A Sharp Decrease in School Meal Reimbursements
Participating in the National School Lunch Program allows schools to be reimbursed for meals served to students. The only condition is that they meet the standards set forth by agency. School districts have benefited tremendously from the current federal aid waivers. They provide a larger reimbursement for meals served and less restrictions on how that food is served. Without the extension of the federal funding waivers, an average school district would see a decrease of 40% in reimbursements per meal, according to the Washington Post. During a time when it is difficult to find certain foods or retain employees to prepare them, this reduction in funding can be devastating.
A Rise in School Meal Prices & a Shift to Universal Free Meals
Schools across the nation are combating rising ingredient prices. While a few have opted to adopt their own universal free meal programs (such as California and Maine), others are taking a different approach. Some districts have chosen to increase school meal prices, such as a North Carolina district that raised prices by $1. While an increase in prices is not ideal, it is a necessary adjustment for many districts that do not have the option of universal free meals and are eventually losing the financial support that the federal nutrition waivers provide.
Return to Strict Federal Meal Service Guidelines
The National School Lunch Program has strict guidelines for which ingredients and meals it will count as reimbursable. The waivers mean students can get meals in the classrooms, curbside, or however makes the most sense for each particular school. In addition, it is easy to make substitutions for ingredients that are not available or that are too expensive. An expiration of the waivers will mean a return to the strict federal meal service guidelines. This will make it difficult for cafeteria staff to put together meals that will meet the strict guidelines. For example, the sodium requirements are changing, and school menus will need to be updated to meet the National School Lunch Program guidelines.
Difficulty Retaining Food Service Staff
The federal funding has helped with more than meal expenses and serving flexibility. It has also been used to help retain staff in a tight labor market. Additional funding is necessary to offer higher wages to employees in an industry that is facing a national labor shortage. There is not a lot of room for flexibility in the food service environment. Higher wages are one of the only incentives that districts can offer.
Navigating the Supply Chain Challenges
Even before the looming expiration of federal waivers, school nutrition directors have found ways to work around the supply chain challenges. The School Nutrition Association created a short animated video to help employees in the district understand what is causing the shortage in supplies and ingredients. It also gives guidance on what to do about it. Here are some highlights:
- Maintain frequent communication with your vendors and distributors
- Forecast your needs early and more frequently, and place your orders much earlier than you did in the past.
- Keep a level of flexibility with your menu planning (here is where those waivers really come in handy)
- Stock your school pantry with non-perishable items. These are easy to put together for quick, nutritious meals.
- Upgrade to a 100% cloud and web browser-based system for ease of updates
Some districts, like Newport Independent Schools, are considering more scratch-made cooking and partnerships with local farmers to use more whole and fresh ingredients. In this sense, school meals would offer a greater nutritional value. However, schools may still be grappling with a need for more school nutrition workers to prepare those meals.
You are Resilient
The challenges you face as a school nutrition director may seem insurmountable, but over the last two years, you have proven your resilience. You and your team have been able to adjust to the constantly changing school environment. Because of you, students are fed nutritious meals. Your hard work has ensured that they have what they need to prepare for the learning day ahead. Plan ahead, stock your supply with shelf-stable items, and keep a constant line of communication open with vendors, distributors and families alike. By doing this, there is no doubt that your school nutrition program will continue to thrive.