School Lunch Costs On the Rise as USDA, SNA Offer Different Views

The School Nutrition Association has announced that school districts need to be aware of soaring lunch costs, which are expected to triple in 2015.

“School nutrition professionals have led the way in promoting improved diets for students and are committed to serving healthy meals,” said SNA CEO Patricia Montague. “Despite all of these efforts, fewer students are eating school meals, and the escalating costs of meeting overly prescriptive regulations are putting school meal programs in financial jeopardy.”

According to the SNA, which represents 55,000 school nutrition professionals across the nation, the rise in costs is due to the USDA estimate that “will force local school districts and states to absorb $1.22 billion in new food, labor and administrative costs in Fiscal Year 2015 alone, up from $362 million in additional costs in FY 2014.”

The increase in lunch costs came as a result of the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010, which has been adding new requirements and regulations ever since, in an effort to provide more whole grains, fruits and vegetables to children who participate in federal school lunch programs.  While previous requirements were met, the newest additions have met objection, requiring schools to force fruits and vegetables on children who participate in the breakfast program, whether they plan to eat them or not.

Since the changes have gone into effect, fewer students have participated in the school lunch program, causing a further budget strain for districts.  The SNA reports over 1 million fewer students purchasing school lunches.

“We could reduce both waste and costs by not forcing students to take food they do not want,” spokeswoman for the SNA Dianne Pratt-Heavner said. “By reducing that food waste, school cafeterias would have more money to make additional improvements to the menu…such as offering more whole-grain and low sodium items,” Pratt-Heavner told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

An analysis from the USDA, however, showed a nationwide net increase in school lunch revenue of almost $200 million, which included annual reimbursement rate adjustments.

Data from the USDA suggests that only 0.15% of schools, typically childcare institutions, have dropped out of the school lunch program as a result of the new requirements.  The USDA has also found that 70% of public school children report enjoying the new lunch options.

While a flexible meat, grain and calorie cap has already been approved by the USDA, the SNA is asking for updates concerning cost and waste.

“USDA or Congress must act to provide greater flexibility under the rules before school meal programs become a financial liability for the school districts they serve,” Montague said.

The SNA reports less food waste, better cost management and more students eating school lunches rather than throwing them away as a result of certain flexibilities.  The group would like to see the 2012 requirement of half of all grains served to be whole grains, rather than asking that all grains be whole grains.  They would also like to maintain Target 1 sodium levels, offer fruits and vegetables while not making it a requirement that students take them, and allowing healthy items to be sold a la carte.

Earlier this year, lawmakers suggested similar changes due to lower student participation and increased costs for schools.