The World of School Lunches: Some New Lessons Learned?
The Rising Costs of School Meals is a National Dilemma
How can we tell our children that the price of fuel has raised their meal prices by as much as 50 percent? For that matter, how can we as parents handle the news ourselves? Higher food and fuel costs are jacking up the price of student breakfasts and lunches across the nation.
School meal programs depend upon staples, the cost of which have literally soared in the past year, far outstripping federal subsidies. Inflation presents its own set of problems for The National School Lunch Program . It has driven up the cost of milk by 12%, cheese by 15% and bread by 17% but has at the same time forced an increase in what it pays local school districts to feed 30.1 million school children by only 3%!
How did this school lunch crisis happen?
Ingredients and fuel prices are not the only villains in this tense eco-drama that claims a cast of thousands. According to Erik Peterson, spokesman for the School Nutrition Association , a non-profit foundation representing school food workers nationwide:
“Even at 8.2 billion dollars a year, the federal subsidy hasn’t kept up with rising food, fuel and benefits costs. All these costs add up.”
About half of all school children receive free lunches, the cheapest of which according to the School Nutrition Association, on an average costs $2.66 to prepare. The federal subsidy provides only $2.47 for a free meal and this translates into a loss of 19 cents on every one of the 15 million free lunches served every day in our nation’s schools. Schools lose even more money when students pay full price for a meal because the average charge for a high school lunch is $1.90 and the federal government only donates a 23-cent subsidy for those students. By law, meal programs must be self-sustaining which translates into making up for those losses. It is therefore expected that in some states, cafeteria breakfasts will cost 50% more than they did last year and middle school lunches could cost 35% more. Although most increases aren’t expected to be that extreme, school officials across the country are preparing themselves for some serious changes.
Rapidly rising costs for fuel and other necessities have thrown a monkey wrench into plans for school meal directors everywhere. According to Mike Gilbert, superintendent of the White Oak Independent School District in East Texas, a half-pint of milk will cost 5 cents more in the fall, and breakfast will go up 15 cents to 25 cents, depending on the grade level.
“With the cost of delivery going up, we’re just at a point where we need to move prices up to stay above the red line.”
In Utica, New York, school lunches are expected to rise 25 cents in the next term. Karen Pulce, food service supervisor for The Utica School District, had this to say:
“We’re going to have an increase of $28,000 for all our milk products and an $8,000 increase for all our bread products this year.”
In Ozark, Missouri, Sherry Clifton, food service director of the Ozark, Missouri food district orders 2,900 lunches every school day, and lately she has found that she has had to pinch pennies on a budget already stretched way too thin. She said:
“It’s just part of the job. It’s a challenge. This past year we got hit with a pretty large 7 percent increase and we expect our budget to jump as much as 10 percent in the coming year.”
In central Nebraska, smack in the heart of the country’s hardest hit region, the Doniphan-Trumbull School District’s food service manager, Lynda Uden, had this to say:
“Last year, food cost increased by 15 percent, and so far this year I have exceeded that, so I am thinking that we are going to have to probably look at my food cost escalating at least another 15 to 20 percent, and that is at the very minimum. It is a very scary year coming up.”
What about the Federal laws concerning school meals?
According to federal law , schools must offer hot meals to all students, many of them free or at reduced prices. According to estimates and surveys conducted by the School Nutrition Association, the average cost per meal is between $2.70 and $3.10. The crux of the problem is that school districts only generate revenue between $2-$2.60 to offset that cost, and as a result, US schools will lose between 5-8 million dollars per school day in their feeding of 30 million school children daily.
Through the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program , school children have access to healthy meals. Through the Special Milk Program , children who do not have access to other meal programs can supplement their day with a serving of milk. For more information, contact your local officials or your State agency to find out if your school participates in the USDA school meals programs.
What can be done about this growing problem of rising food prices?
One solution in the cost-cutting of school meals could lie in buying food grown from local farmers , and farm-to-school advocates are lobbying for changes in the farm bill currently before Congress. One major change involves making it legal for schools to seek out locally grown food. Currently, federal regulations prohibit schools from showing geographic preferences when purchasing food.
How is the issue of children’s school lunches addressed abroad?
The answer may give a much-needed perspective to this dilemma of the rising costs of school lunches . Mexican schools build their day around a large, traditional lunch, which is served at home late in the afternoon. Children usually do bring a snack packed in their school bags, which is often a ham-and-bean sandwich wrapped in a napkin. Those children who don’t bring a snack can buy one for a few pesos from vendors at the school. In France, three-or even four-course hot lunches are often served to children, even those in pre-school. Some children do go home for lunch, and generally, they don’t bring food to school. It’s very unusual for schools in India to serve lunch and so most children carry “tiffins,” which are home-cooked meals or snacks that vary from region to region. Children are served pasta and protein with vegetables with fresh bread and water in most Italian schools.
In the Middle East and the Orient, things are slightly different. In China children seldom bring lunch to school. In Beijing, the school arranges lunches for a monthly fee. Boxed lunches are usually composed of rice and vegetables in a take-away box, the cost of which is the equivalent of 70 cents or $1.40 (Canadian) per day. Japanese children eat lunches prepared by their schools in their classrooms that usually consist of a bowl of rice or bread, a main dish of fish or meat and a few side dishes. On special occasions when students bring lunches packed from home, they are sometimes elaborately decorated and beautiful.
In Israel, children go to school six days a week and consequently the school day is shorter. Elementary schools finish around 1pm and children go home for lunch. They usually have a morning snack of a small sandwich or yogurt and a piece of fruit. In Palestinian territories the school schedule is similar to Israel and children eat lunch at home. Pita bread with fillings or yogurt are hearty snack alternatives.
In summation, the world of school lunches represents an economic crisis that affects parents and children throughout the United States, although certain areas have been harder hit than others. We need to find new alternatives to lessen our costs, but never at the price of our children’s nutrition. Local products may help a great deal in alleviating fuel costs, but as long as fuel and other costs are high, there will continue to be a deep chasm between what lunches used to cost and what they cost today.
Call your school district. Ask what you can do to help today. It may mean a better school meal for your child tomorrow.
M Dee Dubroff