Schools get fed money for lunch supply issues | News
BOSTON — Massachusetts schools are getting a tranche of federal funding to cover the rising cost of vegetables, meat and other school lunch staples that have been driven up by record high inflation and nationwide supply chain issues.
The state has received a $17.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Supply Chain Assistance program that school districts can use to absorb the skyrocketing cost of serving breakfast and lunch to tens of thousands of students.
Nationwide, the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service is distributing $1 billion to states under the new program. The funds can be used to buy “unprocessed or minimally processed domestic food products” to help deal with “unpredictable increases in food and supply prices” and other supply chain-related issues.
New Hampshire is getting $2.8 million from the program, according to the agency.
“Throughout the pandemic, school food professionals have met extraordinary challenges to ensure every child can get the food they need to learn, grow and thrive,” the agency said in a statement. “But circumstances in local communities remain unpredictable, and supply chains for food and labor have been stressed and at times disrupted.”
Under the program, eligible school districts received an initial $5,000 grant with additional funds distributed based on enrollment in school lunch programs.
At least 337 school districts requested a portion of the federal funding, according to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Newburyport school’s food service director Pam Kealey said the district received an allocation earlier this month from the program. She said the cost of food items has increased dramatically, putting a strain on the district’s cafeteria budget.
“We serve a lot of fresh produce in Newburyport,” she said. “And every time we go to place an order we see that there has been a significant increase in price.”
The snarled supply chain means schools are often competing against one another for limited food items, which drives up the prices even further, Kealey said.
The Triton Regional School District, which includes students from Newbury, Rowley and Salisbury, got about $36,000 from the program. School officials say the money will help offset the higher costs.
“Meals are always going out and there’s always food on the table,” said Triton’s Superintendent Brian Forget. “But the supply chain issue has been a real challenge.”
School cafeterias across the country have struggled to keep meat, dairy and other staples in stock, with some not knowing what to expect for weekly deliveries.
The shortages also mean some schools are struggling to meet standards required under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The law, championed by former first lady Michelle Obama, set nutritional requirements for meals served in schools that get federal funding.
The rules prescribe ingredients in foods such as pasta and cheese sandwiches, limit calories in each serving, and dictate what kind of milk is served.
The USDA, which oversees school food programs, has offered waivers to states during the pandemic to provide flexibility on some nutritional requirements.
Schools have also benefited from USDA waivers pandemic that provide universal free lunches, lifting a requirement for low-income families to apply for the free and reduced priced lunches. Those federal waivers, which expire on June 30, have dramatically expanded the number of students who get lunch at school.
“The universal free lunch has increased the number of children who are participating in the program across the country,” Kealey said. “As a result there’s even more demand for a limited supply.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.