As school districts’ meal programs report significant financial shortfalls due to the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently announced it will pump about $750 million of additional funding into school meals nationwide this school year.

Schools will now receive 22% more for school lunch reimbursements than under normal conditions, according to USDA and a report by K-12 Dive.

USDA’s extra funding seeks to help school meal programs keep pace with food and operational costs just as local education agencies grapple with supply chain issues affecting food service departments.

While praising USDA’s latest assistance, some school nutrition experts and advocates agree long-term solutions are still needed. Potential solutions include balancing the supply chain and providing emergency funding to help school meal programs return to a profitable model.

Experts say the previous increase in reimbursement rates was insufficient for child nutrition programs funded by the USDA. At the start of the 2021-22 school year, the lunch reimbursement rate for schools was 15% higher than the standard reimbursement rate. Just half of 1,212 districts surveyed in the fall of 2021 by the School Nutrition Association found the prior increase sufficient to cover costs.

USDA has approved an extension of universal free meals from the beginning of the pandemic through the 2021-22 school year, but advocates agree universal meals for school-aged children should be a permanent policy decision. If funding isn’t sustained for school meal programs in the future, it’s possible food quality will drop or even the whole system could collapse.

The National School Lunch Program served meals to 29.6 million children in fiscal year (FY) 2019, according to USDA. As schools pivoted to remote learning in 2020, that number dropped to 22.6 million children served in FY 2020. Preliminary USDA data shows the downward trend might have continued into FY 2021.

On top of that, USDA’s waiver authority to provide funding flexibility for school meals is set to expire June 30. Schools still have a need for these extended waivers for the next school year, but it’s possible Congress could extend the USDA’s waiver authority as soon as February by including it in an omnibus spending bill.