Getting Schooled on K-12 Lunches

by Ben Miller

The epitome of healthy school food?

The epitome of healthy school food?

As Kay noted last week, President Obama’s new chef Sam Kass raised a series of complaints about the school lunch program in May. But it’s worth taking a closer, and wonkier, look at just what’s wrong with our federal school lunch programs.

Both Kass and Kay noted correctly that part of the school lunch problem is that it all too often plays to whims of subsidies and the agricultural lobby. In fact, this is a problem that goes all the way back to the beginning of the program in the 1930s, which aimed to use school lunches as a way to distribute excess commodities from U.S. farmers. (This page here has more on the history and structure of the school lunch program.) The result is that the foods schools serve are often full of corn syrup and other products that are the function of our twisted agricultural subsidies.

But that’s far from the only problem with school lunches. First, only students whose families receive food stamps or are enrolled in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families are directly added to the program–all others have to actually sign up. Making the program opt-in, rather than automatic enrollment means that many students, especially those in high school, never participate in the program because of the stigma attached to receiving a free or reduced price lunch.

Second, free and reduced price lunch subsidy amounts are determined at the start of the school year. This means they are not adjusted if food prices were to dramatically increase, which can cause trouble for schools if they are suddenly faced with much higher food costs.

Third, the federal funding for school lunches, while large in aggregate, doesn’t work out to very much per meal. The government spent $11 billion on school lunch in fiscal year 2007, but that was to feed 30.5 million students. States contribute some funds to the program, but their allocations are based on 1980 funding levels, and are thus fairly small.  The remainder of the cost of school lunches is provided by the school district.

Fourth, the federal government sets  nutrition standards for meal content, such as how much whole grains, meat, vegetables, low fat calories, and other healthy things the school must provide. While it is good to be requiring schools to serve healthy meals, the federal reimbursement rate does not rise fast enough to cover the costs of meeting these standards. The result is that school districts may not receive enough federal funds to buy more expensive items like fresh produce.

How little lunch money do school districts receive? Consider the case of the Baltimore City schools. They received $23.5 million for school lunches in fiscal year 2007. But they also had 71 percent of their 87,643 students enrolled in the free and reduced price lunch program. That’s over 62,000 students each needing 180 lunches a year. All told, those millions of dollars yield roughly $2.09 per meal. That’s not very much to fulfill the new city school chef’s plan to purchase locally grown foods.  (Visit this site here to see how much each school district receives for free and reduced price lunches and how many students are enrolled in the program.)

This low per-meal reimbursement rate is common across the nation.  Schools where at least 60 percent of their students are eligible for free or reduced price lunches got just $2.49 per free lunch and $2.09 per reduced price lunch in the 2007-08 school year. That’s not very much funds to provide a healthy meal that kids might also want to eat.

The ability to buy food in bulk will lower prices somewhat, but make no mistake, the combination of nutrition requirements, rising food prices, and making meals kid-friendly is not an easy equation to solve. Jamie Oliver may have had some success redesigning school lunches, as several commenters noted on Kay’s post, but celebrity chef Tyler Florence struggled mightily when he attempted the same thing for an ABC reality show.

For many students, the meals and snacks they get at schools will be their best opportunity for healthy and nutritious food or any food at all–which is crucial for ensuring healthy development of minds and bodies. To accomplish this, states need to make it easier and more automatic for students to enroll and take steps to remove the stigma from receiving a free or reduced-price lunch.

The government, meanwhile, has to recognize that it is nearly impossible to put together a healthy, filling, and kid-friendly meal for just a few dollars, especially if the food they provide is directly linked to what we over-subsidize. For many children there is such a thing as a free lunch, now it’s up to states and the government to make it worth getting.

Thanks to Jennifer Cohen who provided numbers and information for this post
Image used under a Creative Commons license from flickr user john.murden

6 responses to “Getting Schooled on K-12 Lunches

  1. Thanks very much for breaking this down. I suspect that Kass, while well intentioned, has little idea about all this.

    I would love it if my kids had quality lunches served to them. I could do that if they brought from home but they lobbied mightily to buy lunch at school so the best I can do is look at the menu and impress upon them the smarter choices. Sometimes it works.

    The other thing to note about free- and reduced breakfast and lunch is that sometimes this is the best meal the kids get at all. That makes overhauling the program an even greater imperative.

  2. Hellooooo…

    I’ve blogged about school lunches time and again (I’m a D.C. area dietitian and community volunteer for nutrition and exercise programs.)

    I also grew up poor. My family was on WIC and free lunch. It was crap food for the most part. I can’t say I remember eating a piece of whole fruit. I remember milk and cheetos.

    D.C. rates #1 in childhood obesity. Yet, you look at their menu and there is a major problem. They serve junk. Your article brought up some good points about the problems, but missed a big one – competition from other food choices.

    In D.C. kids can choose burgers and fries and pizza every day as an entree — so even if they did revamp nutrition standards — if schools offer three entree choices every single day, do you think kids will make a change?

    No…. Hey, I looooove pizza (I’m a big runner so thick crust pizza is a go-to after my long runs) and burgers are OK. But what about a little moderation here?

    When the norm is healthy, appetizing food like salad bars, grilled lean meats, and vegetarian choices then the burgers and pizza are less of an issue.

    I’m just sayin…

    Love the blog!

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