How much does it cost to serve kids healthy school meals?
The School Nutrition Association should know. SNA is an organization of 55,000 school food professionals, including both those who run school meal programs and those who supply the products they serve. Some of their members are complaining that they can’t run their cafeterias in the black. That’s why SNA is asking Congress for an extra 35 cents per meal for school breakfast and lunch, to bring government funding for school meals closer to their cost.
New higher food standards that are part of the 2010 Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, combined with rising costs for food and labor, are putting increased pressure on school meal programs, which are required by law to break even. When a school meal program runs a deficit, the school district must transfer in money from the general fund to balance the books.
But is an extra 35 cents per meal really enough for school cafeterias to break even? Would it be enough to bail out the perennially insolvent SFUSD school meal program?
San Francisco Unified School District’s Student Nutrition Services has been running in the red for so long that memories of a balanced budget for that department are lost in the mists of antiquity. The city’s famously high cost of living drives everything higher, from wages (SF cafeteria workers start at over $14 hour while some other cities pay less than $10) to delivery costs (diesel currently costs about $2.75 per gallon in Lincoln, Nebraska, but about $3.50 a gallon in SF.)
Combine this with the SF Board of Education’s vote to offer healthy but pricey Revolution Foods meals to all students, and these higher costs pretty much doom SFUSD’s cafeterias to constant debt. In recent years, that debt has hovered between $2-3 million annually.
Let’s do a quick calculation to see if the School Nutrition Association’s ask of 35 cents per meal would be enough to get SFUSD’s meal program into the black.
The district served 6.2 million meals in 2013-14, according to this article in the SF Examiner. An additional 35 cents per meal applied to 6.2 million meals would drive an extra $2.17 million more in revenue for the SF school meal program, and go a very long way towards helping to wipe out the deficit.
The problem is, SNA is only asking for the 35 cents for breakfast and lunch, not for afterschool snacks or suppers (which are included in SFUSD’s 6.2 million total meals.) SNA spokesperson Diane Pratt-Heavner told me that the 35 cent request would apply to every breakfast and lunch served – free, reduced, or paid – and would include those same meals served in the Seamless Summer Feeding program, in addition to the regular school year.
If that extra 35 cents for just breakfasts and lunches had been available in 2013-14, would it have provided enough extra revenue to keep SFUSD’s meal program out of debt?
According to figures I got from SFUSD, 1,065,944 breakfasts and 4,025,795 lunches were served in 2013-14, a total of just over 5 million of these meals for the year. At 35 cents per meal, that extra revenue would have totaled about $1.782 million. Still a nice sum, but according to the SFUSD annual financial report for 2013-14, over $3 million had to be transferred into the cafeteria fund from the general fund “to cover the operating deficit.”
So, an extra 35 cents per breakfast and lunch would not be enough to bail out SFUSD’s cafeterias. Not even close.
Granted, SFUSD’s school meal program is more expensive than most. In addition to higher costs that come from our higher cost of living, and from the freshly made but costly Revolution Foods meals, SFUSD has also adopted some policies that drive the cafeteria fund deficit.
A decision made several years ago by SF’s Student Nutrition Services to offer only complete meals that meet all NSLP regulations, and eliminate the sale of all a la carte items except water, milk and fruit, has led to more students eating a full meal instead of snacks at lunchtime. However, it eliminated a revenue stream that most schools nationwide rely on – selling a panoply of snack foods to kids with money to spend.
Such sales enable poorer nutrition for kids by giving children the option to make lunch out of a bag of “Smart Snacks in Schools”-compliant chips and a bottle of apple juice. Worse, they contribute to the stigma attached to school lunch that drives some low income students to skip the cafeteria entirely rather than self-identify as “poor” in front of their peers. When cool kids with money to spend are scarfing Flamin’ Hot Cheetos Puffs, being seen with a lunch tray full of a balanced meal is the same as wearing a big sign that says, “I can only afford free lunch.”
Although some of SFUSD’s school lunch budget woes may be seen as self-inflicted, in reality this is the way all school lunch programs should operate. The higher quality, freshly made meals, the offering of only complete lunches rather than a 7-Eleven’s worth of snacks, the policy of never denying a child food just because they can’t pay, are the hallmarks of a humane, caring school meal program that puts the health and welfare of children above the financial concerns of adults.
Rather than asking for only enough extra funding to balance the budgets of school districts that also sell junk food to kids, or that give a child with no lunch money a meal of shame of a cheese sandwich (or nothing at all), wouldn’t it be better for the School Nutrition Association to ask Congress to fund all school meal programs so that they could afford to do what is best for the kids?
Sadly, that issue is probably moot, since, as predicted, SNA has already thrown their request for more funding under the bus in an attempt to instead secure rollbacks to nutrition standards, or what SNA calls “flexibility.” As Bettina Elias Siegel at The Lunch Tray points out, SNA’s president Julia Bauscher has already told food policy reporter Helena Bottemiller Evich that “she is not optimistic about such a funding increase…[but] flexibility is free.”
The School Nutrition Association may not be sincere in asking for higher funding for school meal programs, but school food advocates should be. Lack of funding is at the heart of every major problem these programs face. More money could help pay for everything from replacing old worn out kitchen equipment, to higher wages for cafeteria staff to scratch cook instead of reheat meals prepared elsewhere, to bringing in popular but costly produce like fresh berries and kiwi.
With a more robust revenue stream from breakfast and lunch, cafeterias wouldn’t have to rely on the sale of snack food to balance their budgets, poor kids would no longer face the stigma of eating “free lunch” while others eat chips, no child would ever be humiliated with a “meal of shame,” and real nutrition education could become part of the school meal experience.
These are goals all school food advocates can support. It’s too bad that the School Nutrition Association won’t.
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