Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Lunch breaks:
NSLP participation declining as costs rise

New U.S. nutrition standards may not be having the desired effect as more schools confront the reality that fewer students are taking part in the federally subsidized National School Lunch Program. Student participation was down 1 percent from March 2014 to March 2015 in Illinois, continuing a five-year, 6 percent decline.

The districts that participate are seeing a larger amount of waste as more fresh food is thrown away, including as much as $1 billion nationwide just last year, according to a study by the Harvard School of Public Health. The study reported that 60 percent of fresh vegetables and 40 percent of fresh fruit are being thrown away.

Illinois students appear to be in line with others across the country in their dissatisfaction with school lunch choices. Since the 2012 implementation of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, as many as 1.2 million students nationwide have forgone the national lunch program, with Illinois seeing its total participation of more than 1.1 million drop by 41,509 students between 2012 and 2014. The number of meals served under the National School Lunch Program in Illinois has declined by more than ten million since Fiscal Year 2010. More recent data since the healthier meal standards have been in place shows a decline of 6.3 million meals between the 2013 and 2014 school year alone.

The national program’s participation totals remain immense, however, with nearly 100,000 schools serving school lunches to 30.4 million students each day nationwide. In the 2014 school year that total included 19.2 million free lunches, 2.5 million lunches at a reduced price (where the student paid $.40), and 8.7 million lunches served at full price.

While student participation in the program nationwide actually increased incrementally (.5 percent) from March 2014 to March 2015, much of that increase occurred in just a few states as participation fell in most states.

A look at the numbers indicates program costs also are on the rise. Fluctuating food prices can be attributed to some of the cost increase, but the large jump in payments to individual states at the same time as the implementation of the new nutrition standards provides some context. Between FY2012 and FY 2014, Illinois served some 41,000 fewer participants but saw $49,627,100 in additional federal meal aid.

Congress is now considering reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, which expires in September. The Act provides nutritional guidelines for school lunches, and must be reauthorized every five years. The last reauthorization, phased in over several years after it was passed in 2010, included measures designed to improve the nutritional quality of school lunches.

Proposed changes this time include increasing the amount of federal reimbursement for meals, taking steps to increase student participation in the program, and providing grants for kitchen equipment and staff training.

The program’s nutritional guidelines may also be up for review as nutrition directors at some schools have expressed frustration with the guidelines implemented over the past four years. The rules restrict the amount of fat, sodium and total calories that school meals can contain. They also require all grains served to be whole-grain, and they stipulate that students must take a fruit or vegetable whether they want it or not, which may account for much of the waste of such foods.

The changes also have been expensive for schools, said Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association (SNA), which is part of the reason the SNA is lobbying for more flexibility and more money per meal from the federal government.

“Nutrition standards have significantly increased the cost of preparing school meals and presented new challenges, from student acceptance to menu planning,” Pratt-Heavner said.

School lunches now must meet meal-pattern and nutrition standards based on the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The current meal pattern increases the availability of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in the school menu. The meal pattern’s dietary specifications set specific calorie limits to ensure age-appropriate meals for grades K-5, 6-8, and 9-12. Other meal enhancements include gradual reductions in the sodium content of the meals (initial targets had to be reached by 2014-15, with stricter targets ahead in 2017-18 and 2022-23). While participating schools’ lunches must meet the requirements, decisions about what specific foods to serve and how they are prepared are still made by local school food authorities.

The federal government provides only a broad framework for the school lunch program, as state government and local school districts have wide latitude in determining the final form of school food programs, Pratt-Heavner said.

Any child at a participating school may purchase a meal through the National School Lunch Program. Children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level are eligible for free meals. Those with incomes between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level are eligible for reduced-price meals, for which students can be charged no more than 40 cents. (For the period July 1, 2014, through June 30, 2015, 130 percent of the poverty level is $31,005 for a family of four; 185 percent is $44,123.) Children from families with incomes over 185 percent of poverty pay a full price, though their meals are still subsidized to some extent. Local school districts set their own prices for full-price (paid) meals.

School meal prices vary widely across the country. Prices are set by local school districts, usually with school board oversight. The following table lists average prices for paid meals during the 2013-14 school year. The data was collected in SNA’s State of School Nutrition 2014 survey, which included responses from 1,102 SNA member school districts nationwide.

  • Average elementary lunches $2.18; breakfasts $1.26
  • Average middle school lunches $2.37; breakfasts $1.33
  • Average high school lunches $2.42; breakfasts $1.36

As mentioned, local school food authorities set their own prices for full-price meals, but must operate their meal services as non-profit programs. After-school snacks are provided to children on the same income eligibility basis as school meals. However, programs that operate in areas where at least 50 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals may serve all their snacks for free.

How much reimbursement do schools get? Most of the support USDA provides to schools in the National School Lunch Program comes in the form of a cash reimbursement for each meal served. The current (July 1, 2014 through June 30, 2015) basic cash reimbursement rates if school food authorities served less than 60% free and reduced price lunches during the second preceding school year are: free lunches: $2.98; reduced-price lunches: $2.58; Paid lunches: $0.28;

School food authorities that are certified to be in compliance with the updated meal requirements receive an additional six cents of federal cash reimbursement for each meal served. This bonus is adjusted for inflation in subsequent years. The above rates exclude the additional six cents. Higher reimbursement rates are also in effect for schools with high percentages of low-income students (an additional $.02 per lunch is provided to schools in which 60 percent or more of the second preceding school year lunches were served free or at a reduced price).

For the latest reimbursement rates visit FNS website at

In addition to cash reimbursements, schools are entitled by law to receive USDA foods, called “entitlement” foods, at a value of 23.25 cents for each meal served in Fiscal Year 2012‐2013. Schools can also get “bonus” USDA foods as they are available from surplus agricultural stocks. Through Team Nutrition, USDA provides schools with technical training and assistance to help school food service staffs prepare healthful meals, and with nutrition education to help children understand the link between diet and health.

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What kinds of foods do schools get from USDA? States select entitlement foods for their schools from a list of various foods purchased by USDA and offered through the school lunch program. Bonus foods are offered only as they become available through agricultural surplus. The variety of both entitlement and bonus USDA foods schools can get from USDA depends on quantities available and market prices. A very successful project between USDA and the Department of Defense (DoD) has helped provide schools with fresh produce purchased through DoD. USDA has also worked with schools to help promote connections with local small farmers who may be able to provide fresh produce.

Tens of millions of kids and hundreds of billions of meals have been served over the years. In 1946, the National School Lunch Act created the modern school lunch program, although USDA had provided funds and food to schools for many years prior to 1946. About 7.1 million children were participating in the National School Lunch Program by the end of its first year, 1946-47. By 1970, 22 million children were participating, and by 1980 the figure was nearly 27 million. In 1990, over 24 million children ate school lunch every day. In Fiscal Year 2012, more than 31.6 million children each day got their lunch through the National School Lunch Program. Since the modern program began, more than 224 billion lunches have been served.

How much does the program cost nationwide? The National School Lunch Program cost $11.7 billion in FY 2014, according to the USDA. By comparison, the lunch program's total cost in 1947 was $70 million; in 1950, $119.7 million; in 1960, $225.8 million; in 1970, $565.5 million; in 1980, $3.2 billion; in 1990, $3.7 billion; and in 2000, 6.1 billion.

But, as mentioned, recent federal efforts to improve school food have generated criticism, with some complaining that kids throw away the food they don’t like. Some will argue that is a problem that’s up to adults to solve by setting guidelines and rules for what kids should eat. It hasn’t been that long, after all, since the days when there was no such thing as “kid food,” just food that kids ate with the rest of the family or they went hungry.