Finding More Money for School Meal Programs

by Dana Woldow on June 14, 2012

In an era of skyrocketing costs for food, labor and benefits (especially health care costs) many school districts find that the government payment for free meals for low income students is not enough to cover the cost of providing those meals. Even in relatively well to do communities, where many students can afford to pay $3 or more for a school lunch, school meal programs often run in the red, or use the sale of a la carte junk food to help underwrite the cost of free lunches.

Parents objecting to the presence of junk food at school, or asking why the cafeteria meals can’t be of better quality, are told that the department must sell junk to break even, or that the nutrition department is already in the red, so no additional costly upgrades can be considered. What’s a parent to do?

Two main strategies help a school nutrition department move toward solvency: bringing in more revenue, and cutting expenses. While consultants charge six figures to do detailed studies for school districts on how to pursue these two strategies, there are many common sense solutions which parents and advocates can promote to their school district for free.

Ways to bring in more revenue

The best way to drive more revenue is getting more kids to eat school meals. The largest source of income for most nutrition departments is the government payment received for each meal served to a “qualified” low income student. “Qualified” means that the family’s income is below a certain level set by the federal government; to determine student eligibility for government paid meals, families must fill out a meal application.

However, in every school, there are always some students whose families have not filled out the application. Sometimes the culture of the school is that middle class families are not asked to fill it out, as they will not qualify. This creates a stigma around completing the application, because children who do hand it in are self-identifying as poor in front of their classmates.

Instead, every family should be required to turn in a completed meal application. This not only eliminates the stigma associated with the form, but also, with a 100% return of meal applications, more students will likely qualify for free meals, which can mean more kids eating school meals, and more revenue.

Schools can campaign to get every student to eat at least one day a week in the cafeteria. A flyer can be sent home outlining the advantages of having kids sometimes eat school meals: no lunch boxes to pack, a chance to try new foods, the opportunity for kids to have a hot midday meal instead of a cold lunch box sandwich.

Emphasizing the healthy components of the cafeteria lunch – fresh fruit, salad bar, “baked not fried” entrees – and using a “Try it, you’ll like it!” type slogan, can motivate parents. To motivate students, Principals might offer 10 minutes of extra recess for the class that gets the highest percentage of students to eat in the cafeteria during a set period of time.

Cafeterias should display food attractively. Studies have shown that students respond favorably to no-cost strategies like appealing names on cafeteria signage (calling vegetables “crunchy carrots” or “zippy zucchini”, or designating a quick-serve lunch line for cold foods as “Energy Express”), and offering fresh fruit in pretty bowls, not the cardboard box in which it was shipped.

Identifying and overcoming barriers to participation is crucial. What keeps students from eating in the cafeteria? If the lunch period is too short, lines are too long, or there aren’t enough seats in the caf for everyone, a school can consider staggering the lunch periods, or adding an additional one. Some elementary schools have success with sending the kids out to recess before lunch rather than after.

Parents often have misconceptions about the school meal program; they may think cafeteria meals are “just for poor kids” and believe that if their child buys lunch, then some low income child will go without their meal. This of course is not true. If the school has improved the meal quality, are parents aware of it? If school breakfast used to be sugary cereal and strawberry milk, but is now low sugar cereal, fresh fruit, and plain milk, make sure the parents know.

Survey parents and older students to learn what they think. Often the best ideas for improving the school food experience come from students who are, after all, the customers.

Combat the stigma associated with eating school meals. Too many older children are embarrassed to go to the cafeteria because they feel it is a public admission that they are poor, and must rely on free food or starve. This stigma keeps students from receiving the meals to which they are entitled, and which they need to stay healthy and learn, and also discourages paying students from wanting to eat school meals, so that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that “only the poor kids eat in the caf.”

Help turn this around by asking teachers to eat in the cafeteria at least one day a week, and invite the whole class to join them. Younger students (up to about 6th grade) love to have out of class time with their teacher, and many will eagerly choose the cafeteria for a chance to have lunch with a beloved teacher.

Make it unacceptable for students to make fun of those eating in the caf; this is really a form of bullying and should not be tolerated. Make sure students understand, from their first day of Kindergarten, that making fun of the food which others are going to eat hurts feelings, and is just mean.

Bring the meals right to the students. The quickest way to increase the number of kids eating school breakfast is to do a Breakfast in the Classroom or Grab n Go, where students pick up their meal at the front door, or from a cart in the hallway, or even from the cafeteria, but take it to class to eat during the first 15 minutes.

If your high schools have open campus at lunchtime, ask the Board of Education to consider closing them. Cafeteria lunch sales skyrocket when campuses are closed, and serving more meals at the high school level brings in more money to pay for better food at every school.

Ways to Cut Expenses

Encourage the school district to follow up with families who owe money to the cafeteria. Does your school district allow children who are not qualified for free meals, but who have no money to pay for their lunch, to get the meal anyway and “charge” the cost? Many school districts see this as a more humane response than turning a hungry child away, or serving them a “meal of shame” such as cold cereal or a cheese sandwich.

However, the cost of this kinder, gentler option can run into 5 or 6 figures very quickly, and places an enormous strain on the nutrition department budget. Some districts allow a student to charge a few meals and then inform the family that no additional charges will be allowed. Families with unpaid charges should be encouraged to file a new free meal application; a family’s income may drop during the course of the school year, and they may not realize that even if they did not qualify for free meals at the start of the year, they might qualify now.

Help reduce the amount of “unclaimed” meals your district is wasting every day. Unclaimed meals are meals which the district pays for, but which are not eaten by students, so no money is collected to cover their cost. Meals may be wasted because a class on a field trip is off campus during lunch, but the teacher failed to notify the cafeteria in advance; the cafeteria prepared meals for students who never showed up, and at the end of the meal period, the food was discarded. Once heated, meals may not be saved for another day.

Other meals may be unclaimed because they were eaten by adults (teachers or other school staff) who didn’t pay, or by younger siblings and parents who accompanied a student to school and ate a “free” breakfast in the cafeteria. While school cafeterias may offer meals to staff or families willing to pay for them, meals served to non-students cannot be claimed for government payment. Just because a student qualifies for free meals does not mean that his parents or 3 year old sibling get free meals too.

Yet another cause of unclaimed meals is class or school wide pizza parties or other food-centered celebrations taking place at lunchtime, again with insufficient notice for cafeteria staff to adjust meal counts downward.

Often school staff don’t understand that the cafeteria is legally required to offer meals for low income students every day, even if other food is being provided at no charge for those students (for example, a free pizza party at lunchtime to celebrate test score gains.) The cafeteria cannot close down for the day; labor costs remain the same whether students show up for lunch or not, and there is the cost of those required meals which must be available for any student who chooses the cafeteria over the pizza party. Lunchtime parties can be addressed and discouraged, or even prohibited, in the district’s required Wellness Policy.

Finally, bake sales or other sales of competitive food at lunchtime draw business away from the cafeteria and cost the nutrition program money, since their fixed costs, like labor and overhead, remain the same whether students eat lunch in the caf or not. If bake sales or other food sales are allowed at all, they should be after school only, so as not to compete with the cafeteria.

Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at Follow her on Twitter @nestwife. This article, in a slightly different form, originally appeared in April 2011 on the website as “How to help your school meal program find more money.”

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