SOURCE: School Nutrition Association

School Nutrition Association

October 14, 2009 09:35 ET

In the Pressure Cooker: School Meals Face Rising Costs and Participation

Federal Reimbursement for Free Meals Doesn't Cover the Costs, According to School Nutrition Association Report Released During National School Lunch Week (Oct. 12-16)

NATIONAL HARBOR, MD--(Marketwire - October 14, 2009) - As more of America's children depend on free and reduced price school meals during the economic downturn, schools are grappling with rising costs that surpass the federal reimbursement rate for these meals.

According to a new School Nutrition Association (SNA) report, released during National School Lunch Week (Oct. 12-16), three-quarters of school nutrition directors surveyed nationwide said that the National School Lunch Program Reimbursement was not sufficient to cover the costs of producing a meal during the 2008-2009 school year, nor do they anticipate the reimbursement to cover costs for the current school year. To view the complete report, visit this link: http://www.schoolnutrition.org/Blog.aspx?id=13108&blogid=564

SNA has found that the average cost to prepare and serve a school lunch that meets federal nutritional standards is $2.92, but the federal reimbursement rate for that free lunch is only $2.68, leaving financially strapped schools to make up the substantial funding gap. SNA is calling on Congress to provide greater federal support for school meals during reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act this fall.

"School nutrition programs offer affordable, healthy meals to students, and we are working to keep meal prices reasonable, but schools are getting squeezed by federal reimbursements that simply do not keep pace with rising costs on everything from food and labor to napkins and spoons," said School Nutrition Association President Dora Rivas, MS, RD, SNS, and executive director of Food and Child Nutrition Services for the Dallas Independent School District in Texas.

Over half of school districts indicated they expect to face continued increases in the cost of food, supplies, labor, gas and transportation. In spite of these financial pressures, school nutrition programs are not compromising nutritional quality. School nutrition professionals are addressing fiscal challenges in a variety of ways.

--  46 percent plan to decrease their labor force
--  45 percent plan to increase meal and/or A la Carte prices
--  44 percent plan to decrease financial reserves
    

Financial challenges faced by school nutrition programs come as student participation rates are higher than ever before. With the U.S. unemployment rate at 9.5% last month, more students are qualifying for free or reduced price lunches.

--  In the 2008-2009 school year alone, 800,000 additional students
    received free and reduced price lunches.
--  78 percent of school nutrition directors surveyed have already noticed
    an increased number of students eligible to receive free or reduced price
    meals for the 2009-2010 school year.
    

Furthermore, while rising school enrollment contributes to increasing participation in the National School Lunch Program, school lunch participation gains during the 2008-2009 school year were more than five times the gains in student enrollment.

"No one can deny the importance of a healthy meal in contributing to a child's academic success," said Rivas. "During reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, Congress must increase funding for school nutrition programs to ensure students continue to receive healthy, balanced school meals."

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