FACT SHEET: USDA Provides Broad Support to Ensure School Meal Programs Succeed
“Since the start of the public health crisis, school nutrition professionals have worked tirelessly to continue to serve nutritious meals. USDA has remained steadfast in its commitment to getting them the support they need to successfully operate meal programs amidst changing circumstances. Studies show school meals are the healthiest meals children receive in a day, which is why we must support schools any way we can to get those nutritious meals to our nation's school children. -- Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
September 29, 2021 – U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) today announced assistance to help schools respond to supply chain disruptions, as part of a comprehensive set of investments to address challenges in American agriculture today. This is the latest example of the ongoing support USDA is providing schools and states as they adapt to the ever-changing pandemic situation while working to ensure children receive nutritious school meals. Through a wide spectrum of new flexibilities, resources, and hands-on support, the department is being responsive to any obstacles program operators are facing this school year and is taking proactive steps to set school nutrition professionals up for success.
USDA is aware that some schools are experiencing challenges purchasing and obtaining food for their meal programs and is taking swift action to ensure that doesn't interfere with their ability to serve meals to the children in their care. The department is actively engaging with partners to best leverage existing options for addressing potential supply chain issues – such as emergency procurement, higher meal reimbursement rates, and targeted waivers of certain meal standard requirements – and assess any additional needs. In addition USDA recently took action to ensure schools are not penalized if they can't meet meal standards due to supply chain issues. These efforts are in tandem with USDA's broader strategy for strengthening the resiliency of the food supply chain, to include a meeting that Secretary Vilsack will convene with industry stakeholders next month.
USDA is also supporting the school meal programs by:
- Providing a broad suite of flexibilities for the entire 2021-2022 school year that allow schools to leverage the National School Lunch Program's (NSLP) Seamless Summer Option to serve millions of children nutritious meals at no cost while still receiving the higher Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) reimbursement rate to cover increased operating costs. Many of these flexibilities were announced in April 2021 to give schools ample time to plan for this unique school year.
- Recently issuing several more flexibilities and resources for states and schools targeted at addressing potential and/or evolving challenges, including waiving certain administrative requirements and ensuring operators can leverage SFSP to serve meals to children during unanticipated school closures.
- Approving state plans to distribute nearly $1.5 billion – including more than $1.1 billion for school meals – in relief funds through the Child Nutrition Emergency Operation Costs Reimbursement Programs to help offset the costs child nutrition program operators incurred during the early months of the pandemic.
- Hosting webinars attended by thousands of school nutrition professionals as well as the state agencies that administer the school meal programs to explain available flexibilities, procurement strategies, and more to help them navigate pandemic-related intricacies.
- Making sure schools receive sufficient funding for USDA Foods – domestically grown foods purchased by USDA that make up about 20% of the foods served through school meals – despite last year's meal counts being skewed by the pandemic.
- Facilitating ongoing conversations with key stakeholders from across all aspects of the school meal programs, including school nutritionists, state agency staff, advocacy organizations, governors, Congressional representatives, and those involved in the production and distribution of USDA Foods.
- Publishing a variety of new educational resources to help schools plan and serve meals, including a new set centered around the theme of Planning for a Dynamic School Environment, aimed at helping school nutrition professionals successfully leverage current flexibilities.
- Ensuring schools and their partners understand complementary options for feeding children both in and out of school, such as the Child and Adult Care Food Program's At-Risk Afterschool Program and grab ‘n' go meals for children during remote or hybrid learning, student quarantines, and school closures. States may also continue to provide Pandemic EBT benefits to children attending schools participating in NSLP, either virtually or via a hybrid model.
“USDA is taking an all-hands-on-deck approach to supporting the school meal programs, taking action to help schools get out in front of possible challenges and addressing other issues that arise from all angles and with all available resources,” said Vilsack. “We are committed to the program's success, and confident in its ability to serve children well.”
School meals have been vital to protecting our nation's children throughout the pandemic. Households with children have been disproportionately impacted by food insecurity during COVID, leaving parents in an impossible position of having to figure out how to make ends meet. School meals have helped to fill in that gap, ensuring a reliable source of nutrition for children throughout the school day.
USDA's Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) leverages its 15 nutrition assistance programs to ensure that children, low-income individuals, and families have opportunities for a better future through equitable access to safe, healthy, and nutritious food, while building a more resilient food system. Under the leadership of Secretary Tom Vilsack, FNS is fighting to end food and nutrition insecurity for all through programs such as SNAP, school meals, and WIC. FNS also provides science-based nutrition recommendations through the co-development of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. To learn more, visit www.fns.usda.gov.
USDA is an equal opportunity provider, employer and lender.