SOURCE: School Nutrition Association

September 16, 2008 11:03 ET

Heats On: Report Analyzes Gap in School Lunch Funding

Rising Food Prices Just One of the Pressures on Funding, According to School Nutrition Association

ALEXANDRIA, VA--(Marketwire - September 16, 2008) - The average cost to prepare a school lunch has increased 10% since the 2007-2008 school year, according to a report published today by the School Nutrition Association (SNA). Results from "Heats On: School Meals Under Financial Pressure" show the average cost rose from $2.63 to $2.90 for schools to prepare a nutritionally balanced school lunch that meets federal nutrition standards. Over the same timeframe, schools received only a 4.3% increase in the federal reimbursement for each free lunch provided to low income students. This funding gap could cost America's school nutrition programs a potential loss of at least $4.5 million per school day, based on 30 million school lunches provided daily.

To prevent a compromise of nutritional integrity, school districts have responded by raising lunch prices to an average of $2.08 up from $1.96 in the 2007-2008 school year. According to the report, 73% of school districts are increasing prices for students. Even with the increases, the cost of a school lunch remains lower than the average cost to prepare a lunch at home (according to meal cost comparisons by Dr. Alice Jo Rainville of Eastern Michigan University).

School nutrition programs strive to offer affordable, healthy meals to students who buy a school lunch each day and are also working to control labor, food and supply costs to keep student meal prices reasonable. But double-digit increases in food costs combined with increases in labor rates, benefit costs, transportation and fuel charges and high prices of nutritious items such as whole grains create a situation where the cost to prepare a meal exceeds both the amount charged for the meal and the federal reimbursement issued for free and reduced meals. SNA's report indicated that 88% of school nutrition programs found the National School Lunch Program reimbursement insufficient in covering the cost of producing a meal during the 2007-2008 school year. Given the rising costs for the upcoming school year, this figure is expected to increase in the coming months.

School nutrition professionals are addressing challenges in a variety of ways:

--  Making menu substitutions such as offering fewer choices, using
    healthy USDA commodity foods, improving the quality of products to increase
    participation, cooking from scratch, buying produce in season - 75%
--  Using financial reserves - 69%
--  Decreasing the labor force - 60%
--  Freezing or limiting travel - 53%
--  Cutting back on professional development - 26%
--  Joining a purchasing cooperative - 31%

School districts are not resorting to a la carte sales to make up the funding deficit, according to survey respondents. As a result of local school wellness policies and state regulations, districts are restricted from selling certain unhealthy food and beverage a la carte items.

Next year, Congress will reauthorize the federal child nutrition programs, providing an opportunity to increase funding. Additional federal, state or local funding for school nutrition programs will go a long way to promoting healthy childhood weight and improving academic success in America's children. Research has conclusively shown that students who eat balanced, nutritious meals perform better academically. Preventative policies like promoting fruit, vegetable, whole grain and low fat dairy consumption among children can teach healthy eating habits and cut into the estimated $75 billion per year cost of obesity-attributable medical expenditures in the United States.

"Heats On: School Meals Under Financial Pressure" is an analysis of information from 48 school nutrition programs that operate in some of the largest districts within the US. The report tracks how costs within these programs have increased due to rising food, energy and labor expenses and what measures these school nutrition programs were taking to cope with increased expenses. The School Nutrition Foundation (SNF) in partnership with Rich Products Corporation will be offering a webinar on Wednesday, October 8, 2008, at 2:30 PM EDT entitled "Paring Food Costs: Comparing Apples to Apples." Information on the webinar and the full report of the analysis can be accessed through Related Links.

SNA, the School Nutrition Association, is a national, non-profit professional organization representing more than 55,000 members who provide high-quality, low-cost meals to students across the country. The Association and its members are dedicated to feeding children safe and nutritious meals. Founded in 1946, SNA is the only association devoted exclusively to protecting and enhancing children's health and well being through school meals and sound nutrition education.

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