National Farm to School Network’s Statement
Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress granted the USDA the authority to issue child nutrition waivers, which have given schools the funding and resources necessary to keep school meals programs afloat while providing free meals to an additional 10 million students each day. This past week, we were deeply disappointed to hear that Congress passed an omnibus spending bill that did not include funding to extend these waivers. Without an extension, the waivers are set to expire on June 30, 2022, even though the challenges school meals programs are facing won’t be over by then. This will push millions of kids and families into food insecurity while greatly disrupting school meals programs and the many stakeholders involved.
The pandemic has exposed weaknesses in the supply chain, caused labor shortages, and pushed the cost of food higher and higher. According to a recent USDA survey of school nutrition departments, 92% of schools reported experiencing challenges due to supply chain disruptions, 73% reported experiencing staffing challenges, and 67% of schools struggled to procure food due to higher average food prices. These challenges will persist into the 2022-2023 school year. Therefore, continued investment into our school nutrition programs is crucial to help schools navigate these disruptions while transitioning back to in-person learning.
The waivers not only allowed schools to maintain their school meals programs, but also allowed many schools to make notable strides in their meals services, such as more local procurement and scratch cooking. With the end of the waivers, schools will now face financial pressure to cut back on these improvements, including local and healthy food procurement, investment into staff, and resources for scratch cooking such as equipment.
As farm to school advocates, we know that successful farm to school initiatives must be built on a foundation of a thriving school meals program that is valued and invested in. In the years since the implementation of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, which updated school nutrition standards for the first time in decades and increased access for low-income districts with the Community Eligibility Provision, child nutrition program providers made tremendous strides toward meeting these more stringent standards. This has included increasing kids’ consumption of fruits and vegetables and investing in scratch cooking and local ingredients. Now more than ever, students and their communities will need consistent access to nutrition programs that make the most of opportunities to invest in workers and the local economy.
National Farm to School Network will continue to press Congress to ensure that child nutrition providers have the flexibility and funding to meet kids’ needs in the coming summer and school year.