The Truth About School Lunch Programs

by on September 28, 2015

(Editor’s Note: On September 27, the NY Times published a misguided and inaccurate attack on the federal law designed to improve the health of student lunches (“Why Students Hate School Lunches“) Dana Woldow addressed some of these mistruths back on May 15, and her article—with a new title– is republished below).

Whose interests should school cafeterias prioritize – the 30 million mostly low income kids who gobble up healthy school lunches every day, or the tiny number of more affluent students who might prefer less nutritious food?

That question should be a no-brainer. With the number of students eating new, improved free meals rising, why would anyone choose to focus instead on pleasing the finicky palates of the 1% of students who no longer choose to buy school lunch? Especially if those finicky palates are demanding unlimited servings of pizza, french fries, refined grains and sodium – all culprits contributing to child obesity and high blood pressure rates for kids.

The most vocal proponent of bringing back less-nutritious refined grains, maintaining high sodium, and decreasing the amount of fruits and vegetables on student lunch trays is none other than the School Nutrition Association (SNA), an organization of those who run the nation’s cafeterias. SNA calls this a request for “flexibility”, which is another way of saying “permission to serve kids crappier food.”

SNA leadership wants to cater to the tastes of the finicky few, even if that means serving less healthy meals to the low income millions.

The reason, they claim, is money. SNA maintains that because some schools struggle to get paying kids to accept healthier meals, those nutritious improvements should be rolled back for everyone. They are asking Congress for changes to school meal rules that would allow cafeterias to serve more refined grains and sodium, and fewer fruits and vegetables, to all students, even those who are happily eating healthier meals.

Congress underfunds school meal programs

Congress reviews and updates school meals rules every 5 years, as part of the Child Nutrition Reauthorization; on May 7, the US Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry held a hearing to begin that review. One of the witnesses called to testify was a representative from the School Nutrition Association.

The last time Congress reauthorized child nutrition programs, the resulting legislation was called the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010, or HHFKA. The HHFKA vastly improved the quality of school meals, setting limits on calories and sodium, requiring more whole grains, fruit and vegetables, and making it mandatory that students take a fruit or vegetable with their meal.

However, Congress only authorized an additional 6 cents per lunch to cover the cost of mandated improvements that were estimated to cost far more.

SNA opposes key HHFKA rules and Smart Snacks

Although SNA supported the legislation when it was passed in 2010, for more than a year, they have been keeping up a relentless drumbeat against the very parts of the HHFKA that have done the most to improve the health and nutrition of school cafeteria cuisine. SNA has been outspoken in their opposition to the requirements for increased amounts of fruit, vegetables, and whole grains in meals paid for in part or in full by the federal government, and eaten primarily by low income students.

Much of SNA’s discontent can be traced to the “Smart Snacks in Schools” regulations that for the first time set nutrition standards and calorie limits on food sold a la carte to students with money to buy them. Due to chronic underfunding of government-paid meals for low income students, many cafeterias had come to rely on balancing their budgets with revenue from the sale of unlimited and unregulated snacks like pizza, french fries, and a selection of junk food that rivals 7-Eleven.

Smart Snacks in Schools regulations, which went into effect for the first time this school year, have sharply curtailed what kind of junk schools can sell, and some schools report these a la carte sales are down. Presumably that doesn’t sit well with the Big Food companies that manufacture many a la carte items, are SNA’s sponsors, and provide about half of the organization’s operating expenses.

More poor kids, fewer non poor, eating school lunch

While the number of low income students eating government funded meals has increased under the HHFKA rules, the number of wealthier students who pay for their lunch has declined.

Some middle class students have chosen to bring lunch from home rather than eat the healthier cafeteria offerings. Others dropped out of the cafeteria due to a HHFKA rule requiring most school districts to gradually raise the price charged for school lunch to about $3. For some, that price is just too high.

Make no mistake – a school meal program running in the red is a serious problem, as these programs are supposed to be self-sufficient. More than one school district nationwide, including SFUSD, has to transfer money each year from their general fund (meant to pay for things like teachers and textbooks) to instead make their meal program whole.

SNA testifies for Senate committee

That’s why I was optimistic when I saw that the witness at the Senate hearing from the School Nutrition Association (SNA) was not a nutritionist or registered dietician, but rather the business manager for the nutrition program of a school district in Kansas. Cindy Jones, from the Olathe School District, the second largest school district in the state, is someone whose job is more likely to require her to count beans than to serve them.

I thought that Ms Jones would speak to the chronic underfunding of school meals, and the very real financial challenges of trying to meet the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act’s higher nutrition standards.

I thought she might share with the Congressional committee SNA’s position that the mandated upgrades were estimated by the USDA in 2012 to drive higher costs of about 37 cents (10 cents per lunch and 27 cents per breakfast), but that Congress had only provided 6 cents extra for lunch and nothing at all for breakfast.

I thought Jones would focus her testimony on the portion of SNA’s 2015 Position Paper that asks for an extra 35 cents per meal to help pay for the higher costs, which in many cases have exceeded the USDA estimates.

Silly me.

Last month, as predicted, SNA President Julia Bauscher threw her organization’s request for more funding under the bus at a US House Education and Workforce Committee hearing on child nutrition, focusing instead on “flexibility.” But at least Bauscher did mention, if briefly, SNA’s request for the extra 35 cents.

Cindy Jones never even mentioned it – not in her testimony, and not in response to any of the questions she was asked by the Senate committee members.

Schools are meeting HHFKA standards

Instead, Jones continued to beat the drum of “schools are struggling to meet the HHFKA standards,” occasionally interspersed with “kids don’t like whole grains” and “kids don’t like fruits and vegetables.” This despite the fact that over 95% of school districts are now meeting the HHFKA standards, including serving more whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables.

In Jones’ own part of the world, 98.8% of schools in both Kansas and Missouri are meeting the standards.

And several studies done recently by leading universities have shown that kids are eating more fruit and vegetables, and throwing away less food, under the new school meal rules.

SNA says rich districts are struggling

Asked by committee chairman and fellow Kansan, Republican Senator Pat Roberts, how she would characterize the schools that are struggling to get kids to accept more nutritious meals, Jones responded:

“What I am seeing, districts like my own, we have a lower amount of free and reduced, so a lot of those kids are making that choice to bring their own lunch, where if you are at a district that has a high free and reduced, those kids still pretty much will eat what they are being served.”

In other words, low income students (who qualify for free or reduced price school meals) are happy enough to eat the healthier food. The problem is those pesky middle class kids, the ones with options, like bringing a bag lunch of questionable nutritional value, or going off campus for lunch. When they bail on eating school meals, the cafeteria may lose money.

Cafeterias losing money is not new

But some cafeterias struggled even before the new rules. As a January 2015 report from the Food Research and Action Council (FRAC) explains, the number of paying students eating school lunch has been dropping since 2007-08, long before the HHFKA rules took effect in 2012, and the number eating government paid meals has been increasing.

For years, it has been a challenge for school meal programs to balance their budgets, a fact of which SNA is well aware. In August 2010, two years before HHFKA rules took effect, SNA’s own survey of their members showed that 65% anticipated the federal payment for free and reduced price meals would fail to cover the cost of producing those meals.

And that’s before the HHFKA mandated combined breakfast and lunch upgrades totaling 37 cents, with only 6 cents provided to cover that cost. Shouldn’t Jones have at least identified underfunding as a major cause, if not the major cause, of why some cafeterias struggle financially?

Government payment alone is too low to cover program costs

Jones described the plight of her school district, which has about 29,000 students; only about 29% qualify for free or reduced price meals. That’s far below the average of 51% of students nationwide eligible for these meals. She explained that her district has higher infrastructure and operational costs than smaller districts, yet is barred from applying for grants aimed at higher poverty schools.

In other words, Jones was saying that just serving government subsidized meals to low income kids, her cafeterias cannot break even. She relies on sales to higher income kids to generate much-needed extra revenue to cover program operating expenses; if sales drop, she can’t stay afloat just feeding poorer children.

Isn’t that all the proof anyone needs to see that these meal programs are not properly funded, when schools can’t even afford to feed their low income kids without relying on other income to supplement the government payment?

That’s why Jones and other SNA leaders want to be able to serve the less nutritious food of years past – because they believe that’s what would appeal to the paying students comprising the finicky 1% who no longer buy school meals.

But how does it make sense to compromise high nutrition standards for all students in a school district just to attract a small number of middle class kids to a program that is supposed to support student health?

Causes of stigma attached to school food

Jones also mentioned her fear that if too many paying students abandoned the cafeteria, it would become a place where only poor students ate. That kind of economic segregation, where only low income kids line up for school meals, attaches a stigma to eating in the cafeteria that isn’t good for anyone. No child wants to self-identify as poor in front of their peers.

But Jones should stop kidding herself about what drives that stigma. So long as children who must rely on government paid meals eat one kind of lunch, while their wealthier peers choose from an array of less healthy a la carte offerings, anyone can tell at a glance who has money and who doesn’t. The kids eating a la carte snacks are the wealthier ones.

Bringing back the less healthy a la carte middle class kids supposedly want is not going to do a thing to reduce that stigma.

Congress should fund school meals properly

The Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act was a big step in the right direction for school meals, but it was put in place without proper funding. That needs to change.

SNA members like Jones should not have to cater to junk-loving kids in order to cover meal program costs, or pretend that gutting nutrition standards is just asking for “flexibility.” School districts shouldn’t have to make up the cafeteria shortfall out of their general fund, or be forced to choose between paying for students’ nutritional needs and paying for their academic needs.

While SNA has the ear of Congress, they need to stop talking about “flexibility” and start talking more dollars – and more sense.

Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at Follow her on Twitter @nestwife, or read more than 140 characters of her writing in her complete archive.

Dana Woldow

Dana Woldow advocates for policies, including soda taxes and better school meals, to improve the health of all children through better nutrition and education. She has been a leader in improving school food in San Francisco since 2002, when she formed a school nutrition group to run a pilot removing junk food from SFUSD's Aptos Middle School, where her children were students; the pilot was expanded to all of the city's public middle and high schools in 2003. She served as co-chair of the SFUSD Student Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee from October 2003 to June 2011.

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