School Nutrition Association calls for boost in school meal reimbursement

By Daniel Enoch

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Jan. 29, 2015 - The School Nutrition Association, which represents school district nutrition directors, says Congress needs to increase the reimbursement for each school breakfast and lunch by 35 cents to make sure school districts can afford to meet federal nutrition requirements. A spokeswoman said the increase would cost about $2.5 billion, based on the number of meals served in fiscal year 2014.

The additional funding is one the recommendations in SNA's 2015 position paper outlining the association's advocacy efforts as Congress prepares to reauthorize the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 this year. Republicans led by the chairman of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., have been pushing to allow school districts that are losing money under the program to seek a waiver from some of the requirements, a position staunchly opposed by congressional Democrats and first lady Michelle Obama.

Lets Talk Food

“SNA supports strong federal nutrition standards for school meals, including calorie caps and mandates to offer a greater quantity and variety of fruits and vegetables,” SNA Chief Executive Officer Patricia Montague said in a release. “However, some of USDA's regulations under the law have unnecessarily increased costs and waste for school meal programs and caused many students to swap healthy school meals for junk food fare. SNA is asking Congress to provide schools adequate funding and flexibility, allowing school nutrition professionals to plan creative, appealing menus that will entice students to eat healthy school meals.”

The group cited USDA data that show that since the new rules were implemented, 1.4 million fewer children chose school lunch each day. That reduces meal program revenue for schools already dealing with higher food labor costs under the new regulations. USDA estimates the new rules will add $1.2 billion to the cost of preparing school meals in fiscal year 2015 alone. The SNA said that a recent survey it conducted shows that, as a result, only half of school meal program operators anticipate their programs will break even at the end of this school year.

The SNA's position paper also called for:

  • Maintenance of the current sodium levels and suspension of implementation of further targets until a study can be conducted on the impact of the previous reduction in sodium levels on costs, student participation rates and food service operations.
  • Allowing individual school food authorities (SFAs) to decide whether students are required to take a fruit or vegetable as part of a reimbursable meal.
  • Restoring the initial requirement that at least half of grains offered through school lunch or breakfast programs be whole grain rich.
  • Allowing all food items that are permitted to be served as part of a reimbursable meal to be sold at any time as an a la carte item.
  • Simplification of child nutrition programs, easing the burdens on school food authorities and state agencies. SNA said the complexity of program regulations and administrative requirements is unnecessarily hindering efforts to better serve students.
  
SNA pointed out that when Congress drafted the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, the association requested a per meal increase of 35 cents in the federal reimbursement rate to cover the full cost of preparing school meals. Congress provided an additional 6 cents for lunch, but no extra funds for breakfast.

Since then, SNA said, the new standards and rising food and labor costs have drastically increased the cost of preparing school meals, threatening the financial sustainability of meal programs. Meal programs are prohibited from carrying loses over from one school year to the next. When these programs can't cover their costs, school districts must pick up the tab, to the detriment of all students, SNA said.

“Prior to implementation of any new legislation and regulations, Congress should provide full funding to cover all related costs identified through economic analysis,” SNA said in the release.

SNA said schools get about $3 for every lunch served to a child eligible for a free meal. For breakfast, most meals served are in “severe need” schools,” which means most schools receive about $1.93 for every free meal served, according to SNA.

Federal child nutrition programs provide 30 million lunches and 13.5 million breakfasts to students each school day. Those meals are prepared and served by some 55,000 school nutrition professionals represented by SNA.

SNA said the 2015 position paper will be the focus of the group's 43rd annual Legislative Action Conference, which runs from March 1-4 in Washington, D.C.

Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, agreed that an increase in reimbursement would help schools serve healthier foods.

“Many schools are doing a great job serving healthy meals at the current reimbursement rates,” she said. “But it can be tricky for smaller schools, schools with lower participation rates, schools in areas with higher costs of living, etc.”

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The United Fresh Produce Association, which represents companies across every segment of the fresh produce supply chain, took issue with what it calls SNA's “ill-advised fight” against serving kids more fruits and vegetables in schools.

“The requirement that kids receive one-half cup of fruits or vegetables in school meals is being successfully met by tens of thousands of schools across the country,” Tom Stenzel, the group's president and CEO, said in a release. “This is a modest step for the health of our children, especially in these critical learning years. When health classes teach students to make Half Their Plate consist of fruits and vegetables, it would be unconscionable for the school cafeteria to undercut that message by not serving at least one-half cup in school meals.”

(Philip Brasher contributed to this report.)

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