Nutrition news

US school cafeterias face cuts as food prices soar

WASHINGTON — Uncertainty is on the menu of school canteens across the country.

Schools, already grappling with higher food prices and supply chain disruptions, are set to lose special funding that has allowed them to serve more students during the pandemic.

What do you want to know

  • On July 1, the US Department of Agriculture will reduce school lunch reimbursements for schools across the country
  • The per-student rate of $3.75 was increased to $4.56 during the pandemic to enable schools to feed more students
  • Loss of funding worsens an already problematic situation in schools already facing soaring food costs

Many school districts have been forced to cut back or make substitutions in an effort to meet the rising cost of food. At the school in Nokesville, Prince William County, Virginia, cafeteria staff learn to improvise. They used to offer three entries a day, but now there are only two left.

“We’re not giving students the variety they expect,” said Adam Russo, director of food and nutrition for the Prince William County School District. “Before, we offered them all kinds of fruits and vegetables to broaden their palettes, and we can’t do that anymore.”

Officials at the Prince William County school district in Virginia say they pay 50% more for a typical school lunch than last year and often have to make last-minute changes to the menu. For example, a carton of milk that used to cost 21 cents now costs 34 cents and a chicken sandwich now costs $1.25, down from 58 cents previously.

“Generally, we have a really hard time finding some of our pre-prepared items, from chicken tenders to sandwiches or pizzas,” Russo said.

A new survey of school districts nationwide, conducted by the School Nutrition Association, finds that 97% of meal programs reported difficulties with higher costs, while 98% acknowledged problems getting certain items. from the menu.

“It’s certainly been different if we can’t get the produce, but often we know a few days in advance, so we’re able to accommodate,” said Laura Posey, district meal area manager. Prince William County school.

Now schools are set to face new challenges when pandemic emergency funding expires on July 1.

“Our programs are in jeopardy, we need help,” Russo said. “With waivers ending for next school year, we will potentially have a deficit of $5 million to $10 million.”

The pandemic-era rule that allowed schools to serve free meals to all children, regardless of whether they were entitled to a free or reduced price lunch, giving access to an additional 10 million students, is also ending .

“There is a lot of hesitation in some communities to complete the application form, you need to provide the last four digits of your social, we certainly hear that in high immigrant communities families are reluctant to apply,” said Diane Pratt -Heavner. with the School Nutrition Association.

There are also concerns about summer meal programs.

A USDA waiver relaxed a rule that only allowed summer lunch programs in communities where at least 50% of students already qualified for a free lunch. Anti-poverty group Share Our Strength estimates that one in five summer restaurants that opened last year will not be open this summer.

“The school we are in today is below that threshold and this community will not have summer meals available to them,” Russo said. “The nearest place from here may be eight or nine miles away.”

There are a number of proposals on Capitol Hill to extend higher reimbursement rates, but not much progress has been made. For now, schools must manage food distribution headaches with even tighter budgets.