By Cindy Long, Administrator, Food and Nutrition Service
Over the last two years, we’ve experienced major disruptions in the world of school meals – new realities stemming from pandemic-related school closures and supply chain disruptions which have impacted the cost and availability of food, staff, and supplies. Through it all, our dedicated school nutrition professionals have demonstrated a tireless commitment to ensuring kids remain fed and nourished.
USDA is offering school nutrition programs all the support we can for the coming school year but does not have the authority to offer all options from recent years, including free school meals for all children. So, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack reached out to every state governor, urging them in a letter to do everything in their power to ensure children still have access to critical nutrition through school meals, such as:
- Using state and local resources to supplement school meals. USDA provides federal reimbursements for meals served to kids, but states and local communities can also supplement those efforts. To date, at least five states – Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts, California, and Nevada – are drawing from their own funds to make universal free school meals possible. We encourage states to stretch their budgets creatively to enhance food service for children in their care.
- Supporting the school foodservice workforce. Nearly 75% of school districts reported staffing challenges in December 2021. To overcome this obstacle, USDA recommends states and districts increase training and compensation for the dedicated staff who serve as the backbone of the school meal programs.
- Maximizing Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) and direct certification. CEP enables schools in high-poverty areas to serve meals at no cost to all students. States can encourage eligible districts to participate and can request extensions to apply through September 30, 2022, if needed. USDA is also accepting applications for new states to participate in the Direct Certification with Medicaid Demonstration Project. Both methods automatically provide free meals to students without their household completing an application.
- Leveraging other federal funds. Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) and Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (SLFRF) may offer the boost some states need to enhance their school meals programs.
Throughout our nation, school nutrition and education professionals have not wavered in their mission to keep kids fed, strong, and healthy. USDA is here every step of the way to support these champions who ensure children are empowered for bright futures ahead.