The U.S. Department of Agriculture will offer an unusual midyear increase to the reimbursements it provides for school meals, citing challenges related to inflation and supply chain interruptions that have made it difficult for schools to purchase food.
Schools will receive an additional 25 cents per lunch, the agency announced Friday, an increase of about $750 million nationally.
The move comes as school meal programs face unprecedented challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including recruiting and retaining staff and work force interruptions caused by quarantines. Those concerns combined with the logistical issues of serving meals while maintaining virus precautions have strained schools’ nutrition departments, which operated on thin margins before the national crisis.
The funding boost comes on top of a previous waiver granted in April that allowed schools to collect reimbursements at the higher rates set for summer meal programs during the school year—raising the money they get per meal served by about 15 percent.
Under federal regulations, those summer rates adjust for inflation every January. This year, that means schools will see the effects of the shift immediately instead of the following summer. Combined, the changes mean schools will get about 22 percent more per school lunch than they would in a typical school year, the USDA said in a news release.
“USDA understands that balancing the pressures of the pandemic with the need to feed children healthy and nutritious meals continue to be a priority for schools across the country,” U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement.
The change is one of several the agency has made during the pandemic, including providing waivers that allow schools to essentially serve universal free meals and flexibility in how closely they adhere to federal nutrition standards. In December, the USDA provided $1.5 billion to states and school districts to work with local suppliers as they tackle supply chain issues.
As Education Week reported last month, the same supply chain issues that have made it difficult for districts to purchase items like paper and classroom furniture have also affected their ability to buy food.
“In a national survey by the School Nutrition Association, 98 percent of food service directors said their top three problems right now are a lack of available menu items, lack of packaging and supplies, and menu items getting discontinued by suppliers,” that story said. “Three-quarters of respondents said that higher costs of items—a sign of inflationary pressures in the economy—are creating significant challenges for them, too.”
The School Nutrition Association, which represents cafeteria directors around the country, praised the USDA reimbursement change Friday.
“This rate adjustment delivers desperately-needed relief to school meal programs, struggling with tight budgets that are stressed by rising pandemic costs and supply chain disruptions,” SNA President Beth Wallace said in a statement.