Making School Meals Healthy and Accessible for the Long Term
February 18, 2022 | Written By: Healthy Schools Campaign
In just a few weeks, children, parents, teachers and principals will mark a full two years since COVID-19 dramatically changed the nature of schooling in America. In those two years, school food program directors have moved mountains in their efforts to provide nutritious school meals, as schools cycled from remote to in-person and back again, all amidst a supply chain crisis. The federal government, for its part, made a number of policy and rule adaptations around nutritional content and access in order to make this monumental task more manageable. Many of the most meaningful rule changes have come in the form of waivers provided by the USDA to school meal programs, and, as the second half of the 2021-2022 school year begins, it is an important time to consider the impact of these waivers.
For example, HSC and other advocates for healthy school meals have been concerned that the waivers around nutritional content standards for school meals — standards which had already started to loosen during the Trump administration — will be difficult to reverse. Last week, the USDA addressed some of these concerns when it announced formal “transitional standards” for school meal nutrition. These standards are designed to “giv[e] schools time to transition from current, pandemic operations, toward more nutritious meals.”
We applaud the USDA’s move to bring the school meal program back into compliance with nutritional standards. As HSC board member and former USDA/FNS administrator Audrey Rowe put it, “this is an important first step to bringing high quality standards back into the program while recognizing the realities facing so many school districts.”
While this bridge rule is an important first step, the transitional standards still back away from some of the strong standards for whole grains and sodium set in 2012 — standards which most districts were already meeting, which were widely accepted by students, which had valuable health benefits, and which were almost universally supported. We will work with partners to advocate for a return to the strongest version of these standards.
In the short term, we will also continue to advocate for Congress to extend the USDA’s authority to grant waivers through the 2022-2023 school year, particularly access-related waivers that allow districts to offer universal free meals, expand summer meal eligibility, change remote meal pickup guidelines and more. Currently, the USDA’s waiver authority will expire on June 30, 2022. It is impossible for school meal programs to adequately plan for the next year without understanding the requirements, and, as our national partners from FRAC explain in a sign-on letter recently sent to Congress, “this arbitrary deadline…[could force] many providers to stop serving meals or shut down altogether and leav[e] millions of children without access to healthy meals” over the summer.
In the longer term, Congress must act on a long-overdue full Child Nutrition Reauthorization process, and send a clear message that nutritious, universally available school meals are a national priority. Healthy school meals are a lifeline for children and families. We hope that Congress and the USDA continue to make sure these meals are as nutritious and accessible as possible.