Students will continue to eat free lunch this summer but, unless there is further Congressional action, districts will soon face the heavy administrative lift of K-12 food service. The end of COVID-era meal waivers and higher reimbursements means administrators this coming school year will have to once again manage their free- and reduced-lunch programs, along with other compliance issues.
Also this school year, districts will have to comply with stricter standards that require serving 80% whole grains–a mandate that will eventually reach 100%, says Katy Hoyng, a former director of school nutrition for a Texas district and a school nutrition specialist with the K-12 food service software provider LINQ.
These changes will likely make menu planning more complicated–and costly–at a time when supply chain snags and inflation are making it harder for schools to procure food. “It’s a difficult thing to redo menus from scratch,” Hoyng says. “Schools can have beautifully planned menus that meet all the requirements but then either the vendor or manufacturer can’t supply the product.”
While software platforms such as LINQ may not yet be able to predict sudden supply chain disruptions, they can make nutrition planning easier by determining if a district’s menu complies with all current standards. These programs can also eliminate the paperwork or spreadsheets that nutrition staff may use to ensure the right students are getting free and reduced meals and that schools are getting the proper reimbursements, Hoyng says.
In the coming school year, families will again have to apply for free and reduced-price meals. To ease the process, more districts can now use their existing data to certify children for free or reduced-price meals without an additional application, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says.
“There’s a long road ahead, but the extra support and funding for our operators will help them continue to serve our children well,” said Stacy Dean, USDA deputy undersecretary of food, nutrition, and consumer services. “We can–and will–overcome these challenges, together.”
With nutrition policies often changing during and between presidential administrations, Hoyng also recommends that school nutrition teams plan for more rigid requirements. It’s easier to pivot when standards are loosened than when they are tightened, she says. For example, lower-sodium requirements are set to take effect in 2023-24.
“My inclination in planning is to stick to the stricter level of operations if possible,” Hoyng says. “That way you’re not having the rug pulled out from under you when waivers go away.”
Last month, Congress reached a last-minute deal to extend free meal service through this summer. The legislation, known as the Keep Kids Fed act, also makes students with a family income at or below 185% of the poverty level eligible for free or reduced-cost meals through the 2022-23 school year. Reimbursements will be increased by 40 cents for each lunch and 15 cents for each breakfast served.
The Biden administration later announced that, as part of Keep Kids Fed, schools will receive an additional $1 billion from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to buy American-grown foods for their meal programs. The funding is aimed at easing the impacts of supply shortages and rising costs. The funds will be distributed by state agencies to schools across the country. Since December, states have also had access to $1 billion in USDA Supply Chain Assistance funds for commodity purchases.