Stricter nutrition standards threaten school meal program participation, funding, argues SNA

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty/Ariel Skelley
Source: Getty/Ariel Skelley

Related tags school meals School Nutrition Association Sodium reduction whole grains

The School Nutrition Association (SNA) wants Congress to once again delay stricter sodium targets and roll back whole grain requirements for school meals out of fear that students will reject the changes and drop out of feeding programs, many of which are already under financial duress due to the pandemic.

According to SNA, “an overwhelming majority”​ of the 1,368 school meal program directors nationwide who participated in a survey released yesterday said they were concerned about upcoming sodium limits that are being phased in through July 2022 as part of The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

Recognizing that reducing sodium levels would require food manufacturers to reformulate products, schools to adjust their meal plans and children’s palates to acclimate, the legislation allowed for sodium to be reduced slowly through three phases – the first of which went into effect in 2014 and third of which goes into effect next July.

Implementing reduction efforts has not been easy – even with a long runway for adjustments – and has faced regulatory opposition and legal contention​.

SNA’s survey revealing that only 26% of school nutrition directors reporting their programs are prepared to meet the current Target 2 limits​, which vary based on children’s grade levels. In addition, just 11% of survey respondents said they anticipate meeting the final target next summer.

Among the challenges to meeting the final target are concerns that students will not like reduced-sodium foods and will not want to participate in the meal program, according to SNA. High sodium levels in condiments and naturally occurring sodium in staples such as milk, low-fat cheese and meat, also hinder compliance, SNA notes.

These challenges also reveal opportunities for food and beverage manufacturers to create lower-sodium options that are still flavorful and kid-friendly but also aren’t more expensive than existing options.

Whole grain-rich requirement remains stumbling block

The vast majority of school nutrition directors (98%) surveyed by SNA also worry that the current mandate to include only grains that are whole grain-rich (at least 51% whole grain) threatens participation rates and will not be accepted by students. Many also cited the higher cost of whole grains, recipe functionality and product or ingredient availability as compliance challenges – signaling another area ripe for innovation and guidance from food manufacturers.

Given these concerns, SNA is asking Congress and USDA to delay the Target 2 sodium mandate until July 2024 and eliminate the Final Target sodium limits – requests that have been made before and generated significant push back from children’s health advocates and the courts.

SNA also wants to roll back the whole grain-rich requirement so that only half of the grains offered must be whole grain rich – again a request that has been made and rejected.

Lingering pandemic-related pressures

On top of these challenges, many school nutrition directors remain concerned about ongoing fallout from the pandemic in the upcoming school year.

For example, 97% worry about pandemic supply chain disruptions and most worry about serving distance learners while simultaneously meeting school nutrition standards, SNA reports.

Low participation rates squeeze already tight budgets

For many schools, any drop in participation strains the financial solvency of their meal program, which as SNA notes “have always operated on extremely tight budgets”​ that go farther with bulk purchasing power.

A sharp drop in student participation during the pandemic underscores the extent of this threat. According to USDA data, between March 2020 and February 2021, schools served 2.2 billion fewer meals compared to the prior year, which SNA estimates created a $2.3bn loss in federal revenue.

This caused nearly half of school meal programs to project a net loss for the 2020-2021 school year – of which, only 32% have sufficient reserves to cover their loss, and another 30% requested district general funds to cover their losses, according to SNA’s survey.

In addition, 71% of schools limited menu choices and variety to help rein in costs, while 46% cut staff and 13% reduced staff benefits or salaries to close the gap, the survey revealed.

To help alleviate these losses and ensure schools can continue to offer students nutritious meals, SNA is asking​ Congress to permanently expand universal free meals to students and provide additional emergency financial relief directly to school food authorities.

Providing free meals to all students boosts participation – giving schools larger budgets and more negotiating power with suppliers – and eliminates overhead associated with the meal application and verification process.

During the pandemic, regulatory waivers allowed all students to receive free meals for the just ended school year and legislation introduced in the last year would make free meals permanent.

Also during the pandemic, the CARES Act directed emerging funding to school meal programs last December, but SNA notes this only covered some losses from mid-March through June last year.

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