By the U.S. Department of Agriculture (Food and Nutrition Service)
The COVID-19 public health and economic crisis continues to be bigger than any other we’ve seen in our lifetimes. It has disrupted our daily lives as well as supply chains and operations across the economy and across the world. USDA is aware that some schools are experiencing challenges purchasing and obtaining food for their meal programs due to supply chain challenges. Some have received little notice that ordered food products will not be provided as planned. As a result, these schools have had to find other products to serve on the school meal menu.
Since the start of the public health crisis, school nutrition professionals have worked tirelessly to continue to serve nutritious meals and they continue to do so now despite supply chain challenges they may be experiencing.
Why are supply chain challenges occurring?
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed a food system that was rigid, consolidated, and fragile. Major disruptions in supply chains have arisen from our ports to school lunchrooms. Staffing shortages at commercial truckers, farms, food distributors and manufacturers, processing facilities, warehouses, and schools contribute to these supply chain challenges. In addition, a shortage of adequate childcare and eldercare prevents some people, especially women, from returning to the workplace.
USDA is committed to doing everything in its power, including working across the federal government, to help ease the pressures on our food supply chain and overcome challenges in the food and agriculture sector. Through a wide spectrum of new flexibilities, resources, and hands-on support, USDA is being responsive to any obstacles schools are facing and is taking steps to set school nutrition professionals up for success.
As supply chain challenges ease in the future, school meal programs will return to their pre-pandemic operations. In the meantime, USDA supports its school meal professionals as they continue to operate these critical school meal programs.
What is USDA doing to support schools?
USDA is offering schools and states a wide spectrum of flexibilities, resources, and hands-on support to help them adapt to any issues and unpredictability they may face this school year. Specific actions include:
- USDA is allowing for higher reimbursement rates for meals served to account for higher food and operational costs. USDA provided flexibilities for the 2021-2022 school year to allow schools to leverage the National School Lunch Program’s Seamless Summer Option (SSO) to serve all children nutritious meals at no cost while still receiving the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) reimbursement rate. All schools that opt into SSO will continue to receive the higher reimbursement rate provided in the SFSP, which may be helpful in defraying additional costs.
- When there is a supply chain disruption due to COVID–19 with respect to foods served, USDA granted a waiver of meal pattern fiscal action requirements which extends to the Seamless Summer Option. USDA is ensuring schools are not penalized for any meal pattern shortcomings that occur as a result of supply chain issues. Typically, schools would not be reimbursed for meals missing meal pattern components. This penalty will be waived if it is a result of supply chain issues.
- Federal regulations allow operators to enter into emergency, noncompetitive one-year procurement contracts during a public health emergency.
- Schools that have experienced unexpected cancellation of food and supply contracts, lack of availability of certain foods, unexpected substitution of food products, or increased food and supply prices have the flexibility to make purchases through emergency noncompetitive procurements.
- This allows schools flexibility to make last minute purchases, such as at a local grocery store, or to enter into a new contract for the entire school year.
- USDA approval is not required to implement this flexibility, which is a standing option available during any emergency. Schools may use this purchasing method for as long as the supply chain disruption occurs.
- Guidance for using the emergency procurement method was published in SP01-2022. This included guidance on record keeping requirements to justify the use of emergency procurements, including examples of what documentation is needed and acceptable. Schools should note that new documentation does not need to be created for record keeping purposes, so long as existing documentation contains the necessary information.
- USDA issued a nationwide waiver to allow for specific meal pattern flexibility for School Year 2021-2022, which allows flexibility in the meal standards and makes it easier for school lunch staff to prepare meals when there are shortages of certain food items. Under this waiver, schools may request targeted flexibility for select meal pattern requirements:
- Whole grain-rich
- Vegetable subgroups
- Milk variety (low-fat milk must be unflavored)
- Age/grade groups
- Because SY2019-2020 data and 2020-2021 data are skewed by fluctuations in school meal participation due to the pandemic, states can use SY 2018-2019 data for school lunches served to calculate their USDA Foods assistance levels for schools (39 cents per lunch), alleviating potential reductions in the amount of USDA Foods available for school meals.
- USDA is providing up to $1.5 billion to provide assistance to help schools respond to supply chain disruptions. 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. But circumstances in local communities remain unpredictable, and supply chains for food and labor have been stressed and at times disrupted. These funds will support procurement of agricultural commodities and enable USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) and Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) to enhance the toolbox for school nutrition professionals working hard to make sure students have reliable access to healthy meals.
- USDA is encouraging schools that are struggling to secure contracts to explore cooperative purchasing groups to increase their buying power for school meals.
- Through the Child Nutrition Emergency Operation Costs Reimbursement Programs, USDA has approved state plans to distribute nearly $1.5 billion – including more than $1.1 billion for school meals – in relief funds to help offset the costs child nutrition program operators incurred during the early months of the pandemic. Though these funds were not allocated specifically for supply chain issues, schools are able to use them to address their current pressing needs.
- With current labor shortages that School Food Authorities are facing, State Agencies are reminded that they have discretion to require or not require that temporary or acting Food Service Directors meet the Professional Standards hiring requirements. School Food Authorities should, however, ensure that Food Service Directors meet the required 8 hours of food safety training.
- USDA is committed to doing everything in its power, including working across the federal government, to help ease the pressures on our food supply chain and overcome challenges in the food and agriculture sector.
- At USDA, we believe that creating and developing a series of local and regional food systems to supplement and complement our commodity-based system, nationally and internationally, will create greater resiliency and create better markets for our farmers, ranchers, and producers.
- USDA has a range of commitments that are putting us on a path toward more resilient and sufficient food system, including $4 billion in investments to strengthen critical supply chains through the Build Back Better Initiative.
- Secretary Vilsack hosted a meeting on October 14 to hear from industry leaders, including school food manufacturers, suppliers, and distributors to identify opportunities around the supply chain and nutritious food offerings for schools.
For a list of school year 2021-2022 flexibilities, visit: https://www.fns.usda.gov/disaster/pandemic/cn-2021-22-waivers-and-flexibilities
For more information on FNS actions to address COVID-19 related supply chain disruptions, visit: https://www.fns.usda.gov/supply-chain