Three-quarters of school nutrition directors surveyed by the School Nutrition Association (SNA) say their National School Lunch Program Reimbursement was not sufficient to cover the costs of producing a meal during the 2008-2009 school year, nor do they anticipate the reimbursement to cover costs for the current school year.
The survey also found that the average cost to prepare and serve a school lunch that meets federal nutritional standards is $2.92, but the federal reimbursement rate for that free lunch is only $2.68, leaving schools to make up the gap.
More than half of the directors indicated that they expect to face continued increases in the cost of food, supplies, labor, gas and transportation. The financial challenges come as student participation rates are higher than ever before, with the down economy leading to more students qualifying for free or reduced price lunches.
In the 2008-2009 school year, 800,000 additional students received free and reduced price lunches, five times greater than the gain in overall school enrollment, and 78 percent of school nutrition directors responding to the survey said they have already noticed an increased number of students eligible to receive free or reduced price meals for the 2009-2010 school year.
SNA is calling on Congress to provide greater federal support for school meals during reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act this fall. “School nutrition programs offer affordable, healthy meals to students, and we are working to keep meal prices reasonable, but schools are getting squeezed by federal reimbursements that simply do not keep pace with rising costs on everything from food and labor to napkins and spoons,” says SNA President Dora Rivas, MS, RD, SNS, who is also executive director of Food and Child Nutrition Services for the Dallas Independent School District. “No one can deny the importance of a healthy meal in contributing to a child’s academic success. During reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, Congress must increase funding for school nutrition programs to ensure students continue to receive healthy, balanced school meals.”
School nutrition professionals are addressing their fiscal challenges in various ways, according to the survey. The most popular include reducing the labor force, increasing meal/a la carte prices and drawing down financial reserves.
In the Pressure Cooker: School Meals Race Rising Costs & Participation is an analysis of two surveys conducted by the School Nutrition Association in 2009. SNA’s School Nutrition Operations Survey included detailed information on issues impacting school nutrition from 1,207 school nutrition directors nationwide. Building on these findings, in September 2009, SNA conducted a Back to School Trends Survey, which focused on understanding the financial pressures school nutrition programs have faced in the current and previous school years. This survey netted 310 responses. The full report can be found at www.schoolnutrition.org.