Schools Turn to Vending Junk Food to Cover Costs of Healthy Lunches

The new US Department of Agriculture rules regulating school lunch menus that went into effect last year are supposed to provide healthier alternatives to the typically fatty school cafeteria fare. Childhood obesity rates in the country are growing, and many felt that combating the problem should start in the lunchroom. However, what happens when the new lunch rules are so expensive that there’s not enough money in the school budget to cover them? Ironically, schools like Highland Middle School in Hudson Valley, New York, have turned to supplementing their income by selling students junk food.

According to Mary Beth Pfeiffer of the Poughkeepsie Journal, this approach might seem entirely against the spirit of the new lunch regulations, but the school – and the district – don’t have much of a choice. With fewer items on the menu that students might eat, the schools are selling fewer lunches. The money to pay for the difference has to come from somewhere.

And it’s hard to argue that selling junk is not lucrative. According to Maria McCarthy, the district’s food service director, between vending machines and food carts, the district brought in close to $250,000 in the last year alone.

Ironically, schools need this income to fill growing holes in their food service budgets, the Journal found, as regulations require them to serve healthier — and expensive — fruits, vegetables and lower-fat foods with government-approved lunches. Further, new regulations effective in the 2014-15 school year will sharply restrict the sale of the sugary, fatty and salty delights that go head-to-head with healthier fare — and will undoubtedly compound the financial problem.
All school districts raise money on what are called “competitive foods,” though some sell more than others.

And evidence suggests that money is needed. In the Arlington school district, the costs of providing lunch rose by nearly 40% from $50,000 to $90,000. Walter Robinson, a lunch manager for Millbrook schools, expressed the sentiments of many others when he said that he’d like to forgo selling fatty lunch alternatives like nachos and mozzarella sticks, but simply can not afford to take that step.

Food programs are ostensibly independent businesses within schools, reliant on two primary revenue streams: reimbursements under the National School Lunch Program for children who receive free and reduced-price lunches, and sales of food. Those sales include approved meals for students who pay full price, second helpings on them, and the always popular a la carte foods and snacks. The federal program reimburses schools $2.86 for meals to children who pay nothing; $2.46 for reduced-fee lunches and 27 cents for full-price meals.

Like many other food directors, Dover’s Marilyn Serino said, “The other sales are necessary to offset the cost of meal production.” Government aid and meal sales, she said, do “not even begin to cover” program costs, among them more than $100,000 this year in health insurance for seven food workers.