We've been hearing a lot about school lunches the past few weeks. In late November, congress blocked a proposed rule from the USDA that said the ⅛ cup of tomato paste on a slice of pizza could not be counted as a serving of vegetables in school lunches (Star Tribune). The controversial ruling has sparked interest across the United States in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and what children are eating. We wanted to take a look at research addressing the financial challenges for school districts around the country to provide an affordable, balanced, and healthy school lunch. It has become a particularly pertinent issue as the number of students receiving free or reduced price lunches has increased 17% over the last year, causing schools to rely more and more on the NSLP.
In the recently published article A Rotten Deal For Schools in the journal Food Policy, Cora Peterson evaluates the program's in-kind commodity food benefit. The way the NSLP works is schools get both cash and food to help fund their school lunch program. The national program also gives each state $0.225 worth of commodity food for every meal served in the 2011-2012 school year (National School Lunch Program). However, due to changes in the number of meals served, food prices, supply and other issues, Peterson found the in-kind commodity funding from 2001 to 2009 to be inconsistent. Some years states would receive too much, other years they would not receive enough. Bonus foods almost always made up for the difference but schools do not know when or how much in bonus foods they will get. Not knowing what food they are getting or when they are getting it is a barrier for districts trying to improve the quality and nutrition of their meals.
Not only has the in-kind commodity program been inconsistent, the cash receipts are not enough. In Adequacy of Federal School Lunch Reimbursement Adjustments published in the magazine Choices in October 2009, Ben Senauer and Koel Ghosh talk about how the reimbursement rates from the NSLP have not kept up with the increase in the price of food. The funding each year is tied to the Consumer Price Index (CPI) for food away from home, but 88% of that rate in 2008 was determined from restaurants whose food costs are only about 30% of their budget. For a typical school lunch program the food costs are 37% of the budget and thus the rate does not accurately reflect how much more it costs to provide a school lunch when food prices rise. The study focused on using data available in Minnesota and California and found that in Minnesota the cost per school lunch increased 31.78% from the 2001-2002 school year to 2007-2008 school year while federal funding only increased 22.28%.
Working to improve these issues is an important step in improving the inefficiencies of the National School Lunch Program. Peterson suggests doing away with the in-kind commodity program completely and switching to cash receipts only. She argues that this will not change the demand for commodity foods but will allow schools more freedom to choose what they want and cut out transportation costs. Senauer and Ghosh recommend creating a new CPI for elementary and secondary school lunches, surveying only the top performers to avoid compensating for poorly managed programs.