The School Nutrition Association, representing over 55,000 school food professionals, recently released its 2015 Position Paper calling for rollbacks of new nutrition improvements for school meals. New rules putting more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and less sodium on students’ meal trays began taking effect in 2012.
SNA claims that the healthier food mandated by the 2010 Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act has increased costs and waste, driven paying students out of cafeterias, and reduced revenue for meal programs. As a result, SNA’s Position Paper reports, 50% of the school meal program operators who responded to an SNA survey expect their program expenses to exceed revenue this school year.
Half of school meal programs are operating at a loss? Yikes – that would be big news – if it were news.
But going back to 2010, a full two years before the first of the HHFKA regulations took effect, even more SNA members were already reporting their programs were facing serious financial challenges.
According to this SNA press release, in their 2010 Back to School Trends Survey, SNA reported “significant financial constraints on school meal programs”, including 65% of school nutrition directors anticipating that the federal payment for meals served under the National School Lunch Program would fail to cover the cost of producing the meals.
By the 2012-13 school year, SNA’s own count of the number of directors expecting that payment rates would not be enough to cover costs of producing the lunches had dropped to 54.3%.
So, in 2010, two years before HHFKA began taking effect, 65% of school meal program directors were not able to balance revenue with expenses, and now, in 2015, just 50% report the same problem? That sounds like progress, not a rallying cry for major change to rules that ensure kids get healthier meals.
SNA was quick to place the blame for the financial woes of school meal programs on the healthier food required by the HHFKA, which they claim was driving kids from the cafeteria in droves, thereby reducing revenue. This despite the fact that Food Research and Action Center recently released a study showing that the recession and the steady increase in the prices charged for school meals are the real culprits in driving paying students from the cafeteria.
Is this just a case of “He said, she said”, or does it really matter?
If does matter – a lot – because this year, Congress is scheduled to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act, which provides funding for all child nutrition programs, including school meals. The School Nutrition Association’s recommendations carry weight with legislators, and when the claim is made that half of school meal programs expect to operate in the red because of unreasonable nutrition requirements, that gets lawmakers’ attention.
Especially when it is presented out of context, without mentioning that this problem of expenses exceeding revenue has been ongoing for years, and in fact used to be even worse before the HHFKA took effect.
Keep in mind that for many of the 30 million kids who eat school meals each day, these meals provide the majority of the nutrients they will get for the day. Low income students often start school already behind their middle class peers, and it has been well documented that hungry students can’t learn.
Schools should be providing the highest quality nutrition to their students, to promote both good health and high academic achievement. Rolling back the new higher nutrition standards for school meals is not the way to accomplish this.
A better way would be for Congress to man up and properly fund school nutrition programs.
To be fair, the SNA Position paper, in addition to demanding changes to healthy food requirements, also calls for increasing the per meal government payment for school breakfast and lunch by 35 cents. This would go a long way towards helping cash-strapped school nutrition departments afford the higher cost of healthier school meals, and it is something that Congress should have done 5 years ago as part of the HHFKA.
School food advocates, myself included, have for years pointed out the conundrum of the HHFKA regulations – we want our students to be served healthier school meals, but without adequate funding, schools find they have to use money that should be going into the classroom to instead bail out their meal program. This has been the case in San Francisco schools for decades.
Schools shouldn’t be forced to choose between meeting students’ nutritional needs and meeting their academic needs.
The solution is not serving cheaper, crappier meals, but rather allocating more federal funding to pay for the higher cost of healthy meals, and that’s what SNA should be fighting for.
Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at PEACHSF.org. Follow her on Twitter @nestwife, or read more than 140 characters of her writing in her complete archive.Soda Tax/Food Politics