This is according to a new survey by the School Nutrition Association, a school food trade group. The organization queried 1,230 school nutrition directors nationwide in November and found that nearly all were concerned about the financial solvency of their meal programs. Though the report did not disclose the names of the districts polled, it said many directors viewed the reimbursement they get from the federal government to subsidize the meals as insufficient to cover costs incurred because of the debt, inflation and labor shortages.
“We are experiencing cost increases in food, supplies and labor like we have never seen before, and the meal reimbursement rate is not sufficient to cover the costs,” said Katie Wilson, executive director of the Urban School Food Alliance, a nonprofit created by school food service professionals.
Schools set their own school lunch fees and can decide what to charge paying families. For students who qualify for free meals, the federal government reimburses schools about $2.60 for each breakfast and about $4.50 for each lunch. During the pandemic, the federal government sought to reduce the burden on families by providing breakfast and lunch free of charge to all students regardless of income, reimbursing the schools for the full amount. That program expired at the end of September.
Since then, most schools have continued to feed students even when they owe money, leaving them with little recourse to make up for those lost funds.
“We are witnessing large negative balances in schools since free meals have been discontinued,” Wilson said, adding that some districts are instituting policies where kids with negative balances get alternate, lesser meals.
The divided Congress has balked at making universal free meals permanent. A number of bills in the House and Senate have been put forward, but none has passed.
Many states have sought to take matters into their own hands, passing new laws to pay schools so that all students can receive free breakfast and lunch. California and Maine have made free meals permanent starting this school year; Massachusetts, Nevada and Vermont have free meals this school year and are hoping to extend the programs; Colorado voters passed such a policy through a ballot initiative in November, but it’s not in effect yet; Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Carolina, New York and Maryland all have active campaigns for universal free school meals.
Advocates warn a state-by-state approach creates an inequitable environment for schoolchildren around the nation.
“The National School Lunch Program is supposed to be a national program, so a child in Alabama should have the same access to meals as a kid in California,” said Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and out-of-school time programs for the nonprofit Food Research & Action Center. “The pandemic highlighted how important it is to give all kids access to school meals.”
“Doing universal school meals state by state is way too piecemeal and will ultimately leave needy students out,” said Donna Martin, nutrition director for the Burke County school district in Georgia. She said inflation has made it hard for parents to pay for meals, and when they realize there’s no penalty for not paying for meals, “that makes them even less inclined to pay.” She said school meal debt in many school districts is much higher than it’s ever been.
“School districts are incurring hundreds of thousands of dollars in school meal debt that the school districts’ budgets — not school nutrition — will eventually have to cover. This takes dollars away from teaching and learning,” Martin said.
Meal program losses cut into education budgets, limiting funds for teachers, textbooks and technology. Recognizing cost challenges, Congress increased what the federal government reimburses to schools per meal served for this academic year, raising it by 40 cents per lunch and 15 cents per breakfast as part of the bipartisan Keep Kids Fed Act. This is temporary, FitzSimons notes, and could be rescinded next school year.
The School Nutrition Association urges Congress to make these increased reimbursement rates permanent and says that without them, new, stricter standards for fat and salt in school meals, eased during pandemic, will be hard to achieve.
Other advocates worry about how schools’ efforts to recoup losses will affect students.
“Are we here to help kids or punish them,” Wilson asked.
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