School Lunch Costs: What the Kiwi Are They Talking About?

, food systems & health analyst | April 21, 2015, 11:30 am EDT
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Last week, Congress hosted the first of several hearings about the upcoming Child Nutrition Reauthorization act. This act includes the National School Lunch Program, which is reauthorized every five years. In 2010, a bipartisan Congress passed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA)—which brought nutrition standards for schools into accord with federal dietary guidelines. As implemented by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the law also requires students to take at least 1/2 cup of fruits and vegetables.

By Bob Nichols, U.S. Department of Agriculture (20111019-FNS-RBN-1642)

Photo: Bob Nichols, U.S. Department of Agriculture (20111019-FNS-RBN-1642)

Studies have shown that children are eating healthier and throwing away less because of HHFKA, but some stakeholders are lobbying Congress to roll back key provisions. The School Nutrition Association (SNA), a professional organization representing more than 55,000 school food professionals, once supported the HHFKA but now says the fruit and vegetable requirement is too onerous.

During last week’s hearing, Representative Robert Scott (D-VA) asked SNA President Julia Bauscher if nutritious food cost more (approximately 51 minutes into the hearing). Ms. Bauscher’s response:

“It can cost more. Especially the cost around fruits and vegetables. A one-half cup serving of kiwi—which is one of my students’ favorite fruits—is currently 80 cents. Therefore I have to limit how much I offer. I have instructed my managers to continue purchasing kiwi—but to only include a slice of it in a fruit cup that contains other, less expensive fruit.”

I love kiwis too, so naturally I empathized with Ms. Bauscher’s students. However, I thought her price quote sounded a little high. So I did some fact checking. One medium kiwi is roughly equivalent to ½ cup, and a 2013 U.S. Department of Agriculture report shows that the average price of ½ cup kiwi was 52 cents.

kiwi2

Having just moved from one of the top 10 agricultural-producing states in the country (North Carolina) to one of the most expensive cities in the country, I have done my share of price shopping. But I also called around to find some current price estimates. Harris Teeter has them on sale for 50 cents each, and a Whole Foods Market located in downtown Washington DC has organic kiwis for 79 cents each. Keep in mind these are retail prices, not the wholesale prices that larger buyers, such as schools, are paying.

Is SNA doing its homework or are they actually looking for reasons not to serve kids more fruits and vegetables?

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  • johnstuartmill

    The average price for kiwis nationwide doesn’t tell us much, because most kiwis grown in the U.S. are from California, 3,000 miles from these kids. Also, supermarket prices are not always good indicators of wholesale purchase possibilities: Harris Teeter may be selling kiwis for relatively cheap because they’re trying to get rid of a shipment that’s about to go bad, as supermarkets often do.

    School lunches should focus as much as possible on local, seasonal produce. Not only will it be cheaper, but the produce will be fresher (read: healthier), and there will be less impact on students’ communities from the pollution and infrastructure wear-and-tear caused by long-distance food hauling.

    I live in New York City, and the cheapest produce I can buy is almost always local and seasonal, from New Jersey or the Hudson Valley. Of course, my options are more limited in the winter and early spring, but with a little creativity there are still plenty of options: Local beets and potatoes, greens and cruciferous vegetables, and winter squash, apples, and nuts are all more than enough to get me through the more barren months. If you don’t think these foods can be made delicious enough that picky kids will eat them, I encourage you to try the restaurant Dig Inn in NYC, which cooks almost exclusively seasonal local foods year-round.

    • Lindsey Haynes-Maslow

      Thank you for the important comment about sourcing locally. There are definitely advantages to purchasing locally-grown foods (i.e., produce is fresher, has less travel time, supports the local economy) and challenges (supply chain management) but consumers, researchers, and non-profits are all working vigorously to figure these out! I love cruciferous and root vegetables, and can’t get enough of them in the winter. Next time I’m in NYC I will check out Dig Inn.

  • Adam Russo

    Perhaps she was adjusting for delivery… or labor… or any other associated costs (like the container to serve it in)

    • Lindsey Haynes-Maslow

      Thanks for the great question Adam! You’re right, there are adjustments to be made for other costs such as labor and the price of a container. However, if a container is already being purchased to serve the prepared fruit, it’s considered a “sunk cost” and wouldn’t be included in the cost calculation. For labor costs — that can get a little bit more tricky depending how the kiwi is “prepared” (skins can be left on, the whole fruit can be sliced, it can be halved, ect). Remember, all the costs I have presented are retail — so there is a considerable mark-up already. Large institutions have “buying power” and can purchase fruit and vegetables at bulk prices.