Inflation, over-regulation, supply chain problems and staff shortages are devastating school lunch programs, a national survey by the School Nutrition Association (SNA) reveals.
“School meal programs are at a tipping point as rising costs, persistent supply chain issues and labor shortages jeopardize their long-term sustainability," SNA President Lori Adkins said Wednesday, echoing many of the problems haunting the Biden Administration, while announcing the results of SNA’s survey of school nutrition director members and its 2023 Position Paper.
According to the survey results reported in SNA’s 2023 School Nutrition Trends Report:
The top 3 challenges for school meal programs are:
1) Increasing costs
2) Staff shortages
3) Menu item shortages
The top 3 most challenging items to procure:
1) Breakfast items (e.g. cereals, granola bars, biscuits, pancakes)
2) Entrees (e.g. pizza, burritos, chicken, burgers)
3) Snacks (e.g. crackers/chips)
“Critical economic and regulatory challenges threaten the sustainability of school meal programs,” SNA warns, reporting that “increasing costs was the top challenge cited by virtually all (99.8%) respondents. 88.5% indicated costs are a significant challenge.”
When meal programs experience losses, education budgets suffer, limiting funds for teachers, textbooks and technology, SNA notes, adding that past increases in reimbursement rates have been insufficient to cover the cost of producing school breakfasts and lunches, according to a majority of survey respondents.
“Persistent national labor shortages and supply chain kinks” continue to plague the K-12 foodservice industry, SNA reports, as nine in ten respondents say they’re having problems with menu item shortages, discontinued menu items and supply shortages.
Current and increasing government regulation poses a serious problem, as well, SNA says, calling for a reduction of regulatory and administrative burdens:
“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.”
“Overly complex federal regulations divert resources from the mission of serving students and impede efforts to quickly and creatively adapt meal services during emergencies.”
While the USDA is expected to propose stricter, long-term nutrition rules, 88.8% of school nutrition directors report already having difficulty obtaining sufficient menu items (e.g. whole-grain, low-sodium, low-fat options) to meet even the current standards. And, nearly all say they’re afraid that the new standards will cause more students to shun school meals, continuing the current decline in program participation.