From the Kitchen to the Congress: A Child Nutrition Reauthorization Blog

School Lunch Prices Increasing Nationally

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It’s that time of year again.  While districts are preparing for the end of classes, school boards across the country are looking ahead to next year.  At the top of many agendas – school meal prices.  Food labor and other costs continue to rise, putting increased financial pressures on the school nutrition programs.  The recession is also adding to this strain, as many more families qualify for free or reduced price meals.  With growing costs and limited federal reimbursements, school nutrition programs are increasingly going into the red. 

To keep the school nutrition programs financially solvent, many districts are considering price increases for paid meals. Here is a sampling of meal increases under consideration:

  • In Jackson County, Ala., the price of a paid lunch is going up 50 cents to $2.00.
  • School lunches in St. Charles Parish, La., will cost elementary and middle students 10 cents more, while high school students will pay 15 cents more.
  • Students in Chesapeake, Va. might pay an additional 10 cents per meal, bringing the cost of an elementary school lunch to $1.90 and middle and high school lunches to $2.00.
  • The Mansfield School District in Texas is considering raising lunch prices 25 cents.  This would be the school district’s first price increase in six years.

According to SNA’s September 2008 study, Heat’s On: School Meals Under Financial Pressure, the average price of a paid elementary school lunch was $1.86.  This figure is expected to increase for the upcoming school year.  School nutrition programs are doing their best to keep the cost of meals affordable for students, while keeping their programs financially sound. 

Unfortunately, $1.86 is a far cry from $2.92, the average cost to prepare a school meal.  The federal reimbursement rate must be raised to help keep the price of a school meal reasonable.  School districts that have a low percentage of free and reduced price eligible students struggle the most.  This is why SNA is asking Congress to increase the federal reimbursement rate for school lunches by 35 cents across all eligibility categories.  Increasing the federal reimbursement rate is one of SNA’s key priorities for Reauthorization 2009.

Is your school district increasing the price of a lunch?  If not, what are you doing to keep your program out of a deficit?  Join the conversation by posting a comment below.


New York Times Editorial on Woolsey Bill

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The federal competitive foods legislation introduced by Representative Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) was the focus of an editorial in the New York Times today.  The piece calls on Congress to take action on the bill, which would create a consistent, national standard for all foods sold outside of the federal school nutrition programs during the school day.  You can read the article through the link below:

New York Times Editoral - Selling Obesity at School 


Recess is Over: Back to Work!

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Congress returns from early spring recess on April 20th after being out for about two weeks. During the recess the child nutrition reauthorization process continued on several fronts including comments at Congressional town hall sessions in local districts and meetings held by coalitions that SNA is active in like the Child Nutrition Forum and the National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity with Congressional staff in Washington.

Last week SNA posted a web story announcing Congressional town hall sessions with talking points for SNA members to use. At several of the town hall gatherings child nutrition issues featured prominently. In California, House Education and Labor Committee Chair George Miller (D-CA) held a town hall meeting at Travis Credit Union headquarters in Vacaville, California. While the economy was the primary focus of the gathering, a local news report indicated that a Vallejo Unified School District teacher gave Miller a petition containing about 2,000 signatures to encourage the government to financially support healthier lunches, those with reduced calories and less saturated fat. The petition also supports plant-based food and nondairy, if requested.

Not far away in California’s 17th Congressional District, Congressman Sam Farr (D-CA) also made the news relating to the need for increased fruits and vegetables, particularly tomatoes, in school lunch and less cheese. The article that appeared in the Watertown Daily Times on April 16th discusses the political considerations involved in reauthorization.

Further up the west coast in Washington State, Congressman Rick Larsen (D-WA) held a roundtable on April 16, 2009 with school district officials involved in the Mount Vernon School District’s nutrition program. A local article on the discussion highlighted the effort to provide healthy meals while struggling with rising food and labor costs and an increase in the number of students qualifying for free and reduced price. The article from the Skagit County News states:

School nutrition programs rarely break even: Last year, only 14 of the state’s 281 school districts broke even on their food programs, said George Sneller, director of student support and operations for the state’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. “School nutrition programs are in crisis right now,” Sneller said. Last year, the state spent $36 million more on school nutrition than the programs brought in, he said, a 43 percent increase from the previous year. Higher food and labor costs are to blame, he said. “I’m fearful that school districts might come to the point and say ‘We can’t afford this anymore,’ ” he said.

Meanwhile in Washington, SNA staff continues to meet with Congressional staff to discuss funding for child nutrition. Based on these meetings it is clear at this point that the Senate Agriculture and the House Education and Labor Committees are planning to move ahead with Child Nutrition Reauthorization for 2009, the current bill expires on September 30, 2009, but in the past Congress has voted to extend the bill. During the recent recess period, members of the Child Nutrition Forum, which is co-chaired by FRAC and the School Nutrition Association, made visits with officials on the Hill and at USDA, all to push for new funding to expand and improve child nutrition programs. SNA also attended meetings as a member of the National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity.

With Congress back in session the week of April 20th, a key order of business will be addressing the differences between the House and Senate-passed FY 2010 Budget Resolutions, including funding levels for domestic discretionary spending.  Both chambers passed budget resolutions just prior to adjourning for recess. Both budget resolutions contain Deficit-Neutral Reserve Funds, providing that any new child nutrition program costs will have to be "paid for"--either through cuts in spending to programs within the authorizing committees' jurisdictions (House Education and Labor and Senate Agriculture) or through raising new revenues (under the jurisdiction of the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance Committees).

It remains critical that SNA members and all child nutrition advocates continue to contact their members of Congress calling for funding for child nutrition programs. Additionally, there is still time to sign your local organization on to the Child Nutrition Forum Statement of Principles. With over 1,200 groups already signed on – we are approaching our goal of 1,500 organizations. Join the discussion – please post below on the actions you are taking to help secure adequate federal funding for child nutrition programs.  

Food Fight - Why We Need National Nutrition Standards

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The community of Peabody, Mass. is currently embroiled in a controversy that’s pitting the school nutrition program and school administrators against students and parents. 

After a review by the Massachusetts Department of Education, the city’s high school was found to be in violation of the district school wellness policy.  The violation? Holding a monthly ice cream social fundraiser during lunch.  According to the district’s local school wellness policy, foods sold in schools must “include healthy choices and age appropriate selections for food and beverages sold at fundraisers…”  The policy further noted that in the middle and high schools, fundraisers “will be monitored by food service personnel to assure compliance with current USDA guidelines.”

After being cited by the state, school administrators decided to ban the long popular fundraisers, calling on students and advisors to find new alternatives.  The result was a public uproar. Peabody, a quiet, historic community north of Boston was thrust into the national spotlight.  Student leaders appeared before the district’s school committee (school board), frustrated and angry with the ban.  The fundraiser provided support for student activities such as the National Honor Society and the school newspaper.  Without the money raised by the socials, these organizations would need to cut some of their activities. 

This story is not unique to Peabody.  Since local school wellness policies were put into place in 2006, both local and national media has been rife with tales of banned treats and cancelled fundraisers. In 2007, the North Cambria School District in Pennsylvania stopped a years-long tradition of distributing special cookies on Groundhog Day.  That decision was overturned after the cookie maker, a school board member, argued for an exception. An honors student in New Haven, Conn. was expelled for selling contraband items – candy and soda.  The school district eventually reversed the decision, but not before the community went into an uproar. Even the son of a high ranking SNA leader has been caught during school hours selling forbidden snacks out of his truck, much to his mother’s dismay!

Incidents such as these highlight the need for national nutrition standards and regulations for foods sold outside of the school nutrition programs.  It isn’t so much about the parties or the fundraisers themselves – school nutrition professionals are not the food police.  Rather, it’s about the messages we’re sending students.

The federal school nutrition programs provide meals that are based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and meet strict nutrition standards.  When schools allow competitive foods, or items provided through vending machines or fundraisers, to be sold during lunchtime, it does a huge disservice to the school nutrition program.  Students will opt to avoid the healthy, nutritious, and balanced reimbursable meal offerings.  Instead, they will choose the less nutritious foods.

School nutrition professionals are well aware what happens when the nutritionally balanced school lunch available in the cafeteria competes with vended items, hallway fundraisers and in-classroom candy sales. Research has confirmed the impact as well. A study by researchers at the University of Minnesota published in the 2005 Archives of Pediatric Medicine found a positive association between body mass index in young adolescents and schoolwide food practices such as foods used in school fundraising and in the classroom as incentives and rewards. The more opportunities for students to purchase food at schools, the higher students’ Body Mass Index is. 

A way to address the food and beverage smorgasbord on campus and to prevent local controversies is to take the local variation out of the equation and create national, consistent standards for competitive foods.  The federal government spends about $15 billion per years currently on child nutrition programs – that should give them the right to set standards for what food and drink can be sold or served during the school day. SNA supports the creation of a consistent, national nutrition standard to govern foods sold outside of the reimbursable school meal.  In March, Representative Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) reintroduced legislation (H.R. 1324) that would regulate the sale of foods sold outside of the federal school meal programs.  The Senate version of the legislation should be introduced soon. The issue was also the focus of a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on March 31, 2009.

By setting nutrition standards, we send our children a clear message regarding health and wellness.  Failing to enact standards denigrates the efforts made by school nutrition professionals to model healthy behavior and provide nutritious, high quality meals. Competitive foods are a distraction. A teacher wouldn’t teach a math class with Saturday morning cartoons playing on the TV. If the cafeteria is truly a classroom, shouldn’t we only provide nutritionally substantive foods?