February 19, 2009 -- The headlines say it all. “School lunch programs in a money crunch.” “School meals costs may go up.” “School lunch program is in the red – and it’s not ketchup.” While participation is rising, the costs associated with these programs continue to skyrocket. In the past year, both food and energy costs have widely fluctuated, while labor costs continue to increase. School nutrition directors must also meet the tastes of increasingly demanding customers. In many areas, the school nutrition programs are expected to provide students with organic, hormone free, locally grown, or scratch made items. As districts nationwide continue to implement the Dietary Guidelines for Americans with more expensive items such as whole grains, low fat dairy, and fresh fruits and vegetables, school nutrition programs are forced to do much more with much less.
According to a Fall 2008 study conducted by SNA, it costs school districts approximately $2.92 cents to prepare a school meal. Currently, school nutrition programs are reimbursed at $2.57 for free meals. That leaves a gap of about 35 cents that school districts must supplement. Some states provide additional funding, but that money often falls short. School nutrition funding is also at risk in some states, where legislators look to cut budgets squeezed by the current economic crisis. In school districts where paid participation is high, the paid meals help to offset some costs, but many of these programs are still running in the red.
To combat this problem, the School Nutrition Association is asking for a 35 cent increase in the reimbursement rate for all school meals. SNA is also calling on Congress to readjust the reimbursement rates for the other meal categories to better reflect the true cost of preparing a meal. School nutrition programs are required to be financially self-sufficient. As food prices continue to rise and families struggle to pay for school meals, it is becoming increasingly more difficult for school nutrition programs to stay in the black.
Many pundits have asked: if school nutrition programs are getting so expensive to operate, why not scrap the program and let students / parents pack their own lunch? These commentators miss the purpose of these programs. Approximately 19 million children are served either free or reduced price meals each day. These are children living in poverty, with both parents working multiple jobs to make ends meet. A school lunch may be the only nutritious meal of the day they eat. Additionally, all students who participate in the school nutrition programs receive a well balanced, healthy meal that must meet federal nutrition guidelines. Lunches brought from home do not have to meet standards and independent studies show that they often lack nutritional quality.
Therefore, SNA has designated increasing reimbursement rates as the top issue on the 2009 Legislative Issue Paper. How will increased reimbursement rates help your school nutrition program? Please share your thoughts in the comments section of this entry.
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