March 30, 2009 -- Last week two seemingly unrelated things came to our attention. In Washington, the House and Senate Democrats presented their 2010 budget resolutions, blueprints for how they propose the federal operating budget be spent for the upcoming fiscal year, including any new funding for child nutrition programs. And in Oregon, a newspaper reported that due to budget cuts, Lowell School District 71 in Lane County dropped Lowell High School from the National School Lunch Program in order for the school district to save an estimated $20,000 to $30,000 per year.
First, the federal budget. Section 307 of the House budget resolution addresses funding for the child nutrition reauthorization process. The budget proposal did not set aside $20 billion over five years as has been advocated for by SNA, the Child Nutrition Forum and other supporting organizations. Had that funding been set aside in the resolution it would have helped provide adequate meal reimbursements to ensure school nutrition programs have the money they need to produce balanced meals, cover the higher cost of healthier items like whole grain products, more fruits and vegetables and lowfat dairy, and increase access to school meals through eliminating the reduced price category. Instead, the budget resolution establishes a deficit neutral reserve fund - meaning new funding for child nutrition can be included in the child nutrition reauthorization process but to do it must be offset by a funding cut elsewhere in the budget.
While the Presidents' budget released in late February included $1 billion per year in new funding for child nutrition programs, the House budget proposal essentially adds no new money for the child nutrition reauthorization process, however it does leave the door open if a funding offset can be identified.
What does this have to do with rural Lane County, Oregon? Up until this week Lowell High School offered lunches to the 117 students enrolled in the school, 46 of whom are eligible for free and reduced price meals. Due to state budget cuts and the difficult decision of the Lowell School District Superintendent, as reported by the Eugene Register Guard, those students can now either cross the street to the elementary schools and eat with students in grades K-7 or they can do what the newspaper reported most students are now doing, crossing the street to the local convenience store for a lunch of "Mountain Dew and a bag of Funyuns."
If adequate meal reimbursements were provided to school nutrition programs by the federal government would Lowell School District not be at risk of losing up to $30,000 for the rest of the school year? Would increased federal financial support allow the district to keep the lunch program at Lowell High School open? The 2008 SNA Back to School Trends Report found that 88% of school nutrition directors surveyed reported that current federal school meal reimbursements were not sufficient to cover costs associated with providing school lunches. Clearly the growing federal deficit needs to be addressed, but the matter at hand is one of priorities: where should the limited federal dollars available be spent?
As food, labor, and indirect costs mount for school nutrition programs, will these financial challenges result in more districts following in the footsteps of Lowell in Oregon? For the 18.5 million students qualifying for free or reduced meals that eat balanced school lunches each day, it is imperative that Congress make children's health a priority and find the funds in the budget to make sure that doesn't happen.
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