The federal government will invest up to $1.5 billion this year to help school cafeterias struggling to feed students under the weight of supply chain disruptions, funding challenges, and staffing shortages caused by the pandemic.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Wednesday that the emergency funds will help schools more easily acquire U.S.-grown food supplies they need to serve healthy meals on a daily basis. The funds will also “enhance the toolbox for school nutrition professionals working hard to make sure students have reliable access to healthy meals,” according to the department’s news release.
The newly announced investment builds on more than a year of relaxed regulations designed to help schools to assemble and deliver more free meals and more off-site meals during extended periods of school building closures wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier this month, to account for widespread supply shortages in a variety of food groups, the agriculture agency waived financial punishments for school meals that fail to meet certain nutritional guidelines. The federal government is also reimbursing schools for free meals at a higher rate than usual.
The School Nutrition Association, which represents school food directors nationwide, issued a statement Wednesday praising the Department of Agriculture for being “extremely responsive” amid a series of overlapping crises that shows no immediate signs of abating.
“We will continue to work with USDA and Congress to address the urgent needs of school meal programs, so critical to student achievement and wellness,” the statement said.
The push since last year for universal free school meals has prompted calls from advocates and politicians to permanently extend those programs. At the same time, a cascade of logistical headaches at every level of the food preparation and distribution process is straining school workers and district budgets.
Some schools are contemplating returning to remote learning and urging parents to pack students’ lunches while these problems continue. In a handful of cases, students have gone hungry during the school day.