School Lunch: Have Healthier Standards Driven Up Food Costs?

, food systems & health analyst | July 10, 2015, 3:53 pm EDT
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Yesterday, my colleague Karen Perry Stillerman debuted our blog series on the School Nutrition Association’s excuses for why Congress needs to roll back healthier school food standards. Today, I focus on:

Excuse #2: Healthier standards have driven up school food costs

Over the past year, the School Nutrition Association (SNA) has focused on how the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) of 2010 has increased the cost of school lunches. Up for reauthorization this year, HHFKA required schools to put more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and less salt and fat, on student’s lunch trays. SNA’s legislative infographic states, “Some of USDA’s regulations go too far, driving up costs and waste and causing many students to swap healthy school meals for less nutritious options.”

USDA’s updated standards require schools to serve “whole grain-rich” foods, lower-fat milk, and ½ cup of fruits and vegetables (fresh, frozen, canned, or in the form of 100 percent juice) with every federally funded meal. In 2012, schools began phasing in the updated standards and as of July 1, 2014, all foods sold in schools are required meet the standards.


Producer price index for food, 2010-2015. (Click for full-size version.) Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Rising food costs for you; rising food costs for me!

A more plausible reason that school food costs have risen is not because of the updated nutrition standards, but because of the overall rising food costs across the country. When I asked Donna Martin, Director of the School Nutrition Program in Burke County, Georgia about the cost of school lunch she commented, “In terms of costs pre- and post-HHFKA, I think there are several drivers.  Number one being the increase in foods costs for anyone in the country. It’s not just that we are serving more food, but food costs have gone up disproportionally to other costs.”

So just how much have food prices risen?

In 2012, when schools began phasing in the first wave of regulations, food prices were already on the rise (see graph). From 2012 to 2013, the average price for meat, eggs, dairy, fruits, vegetables and wheat flour increased 2.5 percent. During the 2013-2014 school year, the average price for these five foods increased yet again—by an additional 3.2 percent. In just two years, schools—and the rest us—had to grapple with a more than 5 percent increase in food prices. Since January 2014, food prices have started to decrease, but the USDA’s Economic Research Service estimates a slight increase from now through the end of 2015.

Still recovering from the economic downturn

Another issue that schools are dealing with is the increase in the number of children receiving free and reduced price lunches. Children whose families are struggling financially are eligible for reduced price lunch if their household income is less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level and free lunch if it’s below 130 percent of the poverty level. Since 2012, the number of kids receiving discounted lunches increased by more than half a million. To help combat the high rates of child food insecurity, under the HHFKA, schools in high poverty neighborhoods can offer free lunches to all students, regardless of their individual eligibility status (referred to as “Community Eligibility”). Ms. Martin points out, “We are serving more children free meals because of community eligibility and because more children are qualifying for free meals.  You cannot blame that on new standards.”

Wait…preparing fresh food takes more time?

Schools are experiencing challenges that many of us have battled for years—preparing fresh food takes time! It takes more time to slice, dice, sauté, and serve dishes than it does to microwave pre-packaged meals. Preparing healthy meals also requires cooking skills. School service food staff need additional training and support to create fresh, tasty meals for students. A 2014 nationwide survey among 1,100 school nutrition professionals found that 78 percent of respondents anticipated increases in food labor costs. So why hasn’t SNA focused its request to Congress on more support to deal with rising labor costs?

Schools need more money, not “flexibility”!

With rising food costs everywhere, increased need for free meals, and the additional labor costs it takes to serve healthy food, one thing is for sure: schools need more financial assistance. In a UCS report released earlier this year, we recommended increasing reimbursement rates for schools. SNA has also asked for increased reimbursement rates, but they’ve downplayed that ask, while insisting on fewer obligations (they call it “flexibility”, but it amounts to rolling back standards).

Here’s the deal, maybe at the SNA’s Annual National Conference you can have your cake (and fries, and pizza) and eat it too, but in the real world, we usually can’t ask for more while doing less – especially not for our kids.

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