Student Well-Being

Watchdog Finds Systemic Problems With Major School Meals Program

By Libby Stanford — July 17, 2023 | Updated: July 18, 2023 5 min read
Students eat lunch at Edward A. Reynolds West Side High School in New York on Dec. 10, 2019.
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Updated: This story has been updated with comments from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Schools routinely made last-minute menu substitutions or served the same meal multiple days in a row as they struggled to procure food through a key federal program during the first full school year in which virtually all schools had returned to in-person learning.

The schools relying on the federal Food in Schools program encountered frequent delivery delays, canceled or only partially fulfilled orders, and price fluctuations, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ auditing and investigative arm, released on Friday, July 14. They also often found that manufacturers and distributors they relied on were no longer participating in the U.S. Department of Agriculture program, which buys 2 billion pounds of food annually from American farmers.

The Food in Schools program, run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, accounts for up to a fifth of food served through the National School Lunch program, with purchases averaging $1.6 billion each year. School districts rely on it in particular to obtain beef and poultry, which account for 40 percent of all purchases through the program, as well as fresh produce.

Schools have encountered supply and delivery challenges through the program for years, but they became particularly pronounced during the 2021-22 school year, as the COVID-19 pandemic continued to weigh on global supply chains and the number of school meals served rebounded with the return to fully in-person learning.

But the USDA has no systematic way to identify and respond to problems in the Food in Schools program, according to the GAO.

“Though USDA has begun to identify and address some operational challenges on an ad hoc basis, it does not do so routinely or systematically,” the report said. “Without a mechanism to identify and address challenges, USDA may miss opportunities to respond to risks and achieve the program’s main objective—providing domestic foods for nutritious meals.”

States reported a host of challenges in getting school meals on plates

Through the Foods in Schools program, the USDA offers school cafeterias beef, poultry, and produce through a catalog of more the 200 products. Schools can choose the products they want to purchase, which the USDA then purchases from manufacturers on the schools’ behalf. The purchases accounts for 15 to 20 percent of the food schools provide through the National School Lunch Program, the USDA’s program that provides low-cost meals for students in school.

Schools still have to purchase the food provided through the program, but the USDA’s role in the process removes much of the work involved in buying food for school meals.

In its report on the program to the Senate’s Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, the GAO revealed that states struggled with accessing foods at every step of the way: from ordering to receiving to using the food. The investigative agency surveyed all states as part of its research.

Many states reported that manufacturers or distributors had decided to stop participating in the Foods in Schools program or doing business with school food agencies. Forty-five states identified that as a challenge to some degree over the 2021-22 school year while 18 of them identified it as a major challenge.

USDA staff confirmed that challenge.

The number of national manufacturers with agreements with the Foods in Schools program dropped from 95 in 2018-19 to 68 by the 2022-23 school year, a 28 percent decline. Staff from the USDA’s food and nutrition service told the GAO that they worked with manufacturers to ensure states received the remaining food they ordered or were compensated for that inventory, but the issue still required some school cafeterias to unexpectedly adjust menu plans.

All 50 states also reported canceled, delayed, or shorted USDA Foods in Schools orders as a challenge in 2021-22, with 28 of those states identifying it as a major challenge. In response, USDA staff said it has provided states with suggestions and flexibility to address delivery problems.

For example, the agency suggested states could stagger the timing of their food orders throughout the school year to reduce the impact of canceled, delayed, or shorted orders. Agency staff also said they’ve spoken with state agencies and other stakeholders to discuss supply chain issues, according to the report.

All 50 states identified price fluctuations as a challenge in the 2021-22 school year. Twenty-four of those states reported that it was a major challenge. In one state, officials told the GAO that, since the beginning of 2022, product prices have frequently doubled between the time they placed the order and the order was delivered.

And once states had access to the food, 47 states reported that tracking or managing excess inventory was a challenge to some degree, with 17 states reporting it as a major challenge.

More than half of states said they were satisfied with the response to their problems from the USDA’s food and nutrition service, which runs the National School Lunch Program. Still, 21 states identified opportunities for additional help, primarily through better communication from USDA. Nine states reported that the agency’s communication was delayed or lacking in some way.

The food and nutrition service told the GAO that it does not have guidelines for communication with states, but rather responds as quickly as possible to reported issues.

GAO outlines recommendations for improvement

As part of the report, the GAO outlined three recommendations for the USDA to improve its Foods in Schools program.

First, the agency should “develop a mechanism to routinely and systematically identify and address challenges” that come with operating the Foods in Schools program.

In a statement to Education Week, USDA spokesperson said the agency “has conducted listening sessions with stakeholders and s initiating actions based on the feedback.” Going forward, the agency said it will work to identify concerns and find solutions, and will establish ways to more routinely address challenges with the Foods in Schools program.

Second, the GAO recommended that the USDA establish guidelines for timely communication with states, and set specific response times for orders and general questions. The USDA said it would seek input from state agencies during upcoming meetings and conferences to ensure the agency can meet states’ needs and have timely communication.

Third, the GAO recommended that USDA systematically identify and share promising practices and lessons learned with states through a toolkit on the USDA website. The agency said in response that it would work to develop a repository of resources for states.

“USDA will continue to seek input from state agencies about the best ways that the Department can meet states’ needs and ensure timely communication on the USDA Foods in Schools Program, so that ultimately our child nutrition partners have the support they need to continue providing healthy meals that fuel our children for success in the classroom and beyond,” the USDA spokesperson said in a statement.

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Seth Wenig/AP