Support for Healthy School Meals During a Difficult Year
January 19, 2022 | Written By: Healthy Schools Campaign
Healthy, universally available school meals have been an important lifeline for families during the pandemic. Unfortunately, escalating prices, scarce products, packaging costs and labor shortages have created huge difficulties for food service program managers, and constantly changing menus have impacted student and parent attitudes about the program. As one district described it, “One day there were no carrots delivered, another no apple slices, and on another no Brussels sprouts” — some school meal program directors describe being forced to make runs to wholesale clubs to stock up. Elements like forks, salad dressing and even milk are sometimes missing, making meals inedible, unappetizing or, in the case of milk, out of compliance with federal regulations.
The USDA recently announced two key supports that will help schools continue to provide nutritious meals. First, just before the holidays, USDA Secretary, Tom Vilsack, visited Chicago to announce that the USDA is providing up to $1.5 billion to states and school districts to help them deal with the challenges of supply chain disruptions brought on by the pandemic. Then, on January 7, the USDA announced an adjustment to school meal reimbursements that will help districts respond to higher food costs.
In conjunction with the USDA’s December announcement, the secretary participated in a roundtable discussion that included HSC’s President + CEO Rochelle Davis, and Representative Bobby Rush. Other participants included representatives from USDA’s Food and Nutrition Services and the Illinois State Board of Education, as well as several vendors and school meal program directors.
One of HSC’s primary concerns around the school meal program has always been to ensure that the nutritional guidelines are as strong as possible. During this event, Rochelle was able to speak about HSC’s goal of making sure that the weakening of nutrition standards — which was started by the Trump administration, but continued for practical reasons as a result of the pandemic — would not be permanent.
This was an exciting opportunity to speak directly to the Secretary and our region’s USDA office, and we look forward to playing a role in advocating for strong nutritional standards and universal meal availability in the coming year.