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USDA allots $1.5 billion to counter supply chain turmoil in school meals

Up to 100,000 schools will get a share of $1.5 billion intended to ease the impact of supply chain disruptions and the pandemic on school lunch and other school meals, said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. School food directors said in a recent survey that higher food prices are a significant problem along with shortages of menu items.

During a trip to Chicago, Vilsack said on Friday the USDA would provide $1 billion for schools to buy food, send $300 million in U.S.-produced foods to states for distribution to schools, and award $200 million to states for the purchase of locally produced food for distribution to schools.

“Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, school districts have met extraordinary challenges to ensure that every child has the food needed to learn, grow, and thrive,” said Vilsack. “The food and funds USDA is distributing will help ensure schools have the resources they need to continue to serve our nation’s schoolchildren quality food they can depend on, all while building a stronger, fairer, and more competitive food system.”

The funding was “great news for school meals programs and the students they serve,” said Lori Adkins, president-elect of the School Nutrition Association (SNA), which speaks for school food directors.

The USDA spends around $25 billion a year on child nutrition programs, with school lunch as the largest program in its portfolio. School food programs are operating under waivers that allow them to serve meals for free to all students with reimbursement per meal at a higher rate than usual.

Even so, only half of the food directors who took part in an SNA survey said the reimbursements covered the cost of serving a breakfast or a lunch. Besides higher costs, the directors almost unanimously said two of their top challenges were shortages of menu items or decisions by food makers to discontinue an item. “School meal programs are paying much higher prices in the scramble to place additional orders and find new vendors when their deliveries are shorted, cancelled or delayed,” said Adkins.

Before the pandemic, about 30 million students ate hot meals daily through the school lunch program. Participation dropped to 6 million in the first month of the pandemic. It improved when schools began to reopen in fall 2020 but never exceeded 10 million a day during the 2020/21 school year. School breakfast participation fell by 60% after the pandemic hit.

President Biden has proposed a vast expansion of USDA’s summer food program so it would be available to the 22 million children who eat school meals for free or at a reduced price. In the past, the summer food program fed fewer than 3 million low-income children due to rules that require the children to eat at a central location and limited the program to areas with large numbers of eligible children.

The USDA estimated 100,000 public, tribal, charter and nonprofit private schools throughout the United States and territories would benefit from the additional funding. It said the $1 billion in assistance would “deliver direct relief from ongoing supply chain issues and improve the quality and consistency of school meals.” Stacy Dean, Agriculture deputy undersecretary for nutrition, said “research shows school meals are the healthiest meals kids receive each day.”

The state by state breakdown of funding is available here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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