The Cost Of A Free Lunch
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USDA's Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) administers the NSLP and reimburses participating schools and residential child care institutions for the meals served to students. Any student in a participating school can get an NSLP lunch. Students from households with incomes:
In FY 2020, the NSLP provided about 3.2 billion meals, 76.9 percent of which were served free or at a reduced price. This share was 2.8 percentage points more than in FY 2019. In FY 2021, the first full year of the pandemic, the program provided 2.2 billion meals, 98.9 percent of which were served free or at a reduced price. The increase in the share of meals served free or at a reduced price is in part attributable to a USDA pandemic waiver allowing for meals to be provided free of charge to students.
In response to concerns about the role of the school meal environment in children's diets and other issues, the HHFKA also established updated nutrition standards for non-USDA foods sold in schools (often called "competitive foods") participating in USDA's school meal programs. The HHFKA also created the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), an option that allows high-poverty schools to offer free meals to all students. To learn more about CEP, please see:
The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program provides free fresh fruit and vegetable snacks to students during the school day in elementary schools with high free and reduced price eligibility rates. Participating schools receive between $50 to $75 per student each year.
Select states, such as California and Maine, have dedicated state funds to continue free school meal service. In addition, high-poverty schools enrolled in the federal Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) can continue free meal service. However, in most schools, families eligible for free or reduced price school meals now must apply for meal benefits; all other families must pay for school meals.
More than 90% of respondents also cited challenges with menu item shortages, discontinued menu items and supply shortages. Students continue to receive healthy meals, but as manufacturers and distributors reduced the number of products and services they offer, the ensuing scramble to secure foods and supplies drove up costs for school meal programs. Meanwhile, nationwide labor shortages required meal programs, which often compete with local restaurants for employees, to increase pay or offer bonuses to attract employees. 92.9% of school nutrition programs report challenges with staff shortages.
School meal programs are expected to be self-sustaining, covering their expenses with federal reimbursements and cafeteria sales. Recognizing cost challenges, Congress raised the SY 2022-23 NSLP/SBP reimbursement rates by 40 cents per lunch and 15 cents per breakfast as part of the bipartisan Keep Kids Fed Act.
Federal pandemic waivers allowing all students to receive free school meals have expired. For SY2022-23, eligible families must apply to receive free or reduced price meals. Children from families with incomes at or below 130% of the poverty level are eligible for free school meals. Those with incomes between 130% and 185% of the poverty level are eligible for reduced price meals (student pays 30 cents for breakfast and 40 cents for lunch). In SY2022-23, a family of four earning $36,075 or less is eligible for free meals and one earning $51,338 or less is eligible for reduced price meals.
School meals are as critical to learning as textbooks and teachers. To ensure every student is nourished and ready to learn, SNA advocates for providing all students school meals at no charge. Unfortunately, federal school meal funds only cover the full cost of meals served to students eligible for free meals. Schools must charge all other students to cover food, labor and other costs.
School nutrition professionals work to support families and prevent or minimize student meal charges. Schools assist families completing free and reduced price meal applications, provide online payment and monitoring of account balances, and send low balance notifications through automated phone calls, texts and emails. Many schools also offer financial support through charitable donations.
Some low income families, particularly those with multiple school aged children, struggle to afford the daily reduced price copay for school breakfast (30 cents) and lunch (40 cents). Some school districts and states have elected to cover the cost of the reduced price copay to ensure these students receive healthy school meals at no charge. This tactic can reduce unpaid meal charges and increase school meal participation among students from low income families.
Research shows school meals contribute to the health, attentiveness, behavior and academic success of students. Allowing all students to receive free meals ensures students have equal access to the benefits nutritious school meals while reducing program administrative costs.
In light of rising food and supply costs, school nutrition professionals face a delicate balancing act to keep their programs in the black. SNA is calling on Congress to provide increased funding and regulatory flexibility to help school meal programs manage higher costs.
In April 2019, USDA released the School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study, which examined the cost of producing school meals during school year 2014-15. The study found that the average school meal program operates at a small deficit, and the reported cost of producing school meals typically exceeds federal reimbursements for those meals.
Lunch schedules and short lunch periods continue to challenge school nutrition professionals, as they work to serve hundreds of students in a matter of minutes and ensure students have adequate time to enjoy their meals. Under updated nutrition standards for school meals, cafeterias are offering more fresh produce, which takes more time for students to consume.
Called universal school meals and advocated under the banner hunger-free schools, the concept is that it is better to serve meals to all students than it is to engage in the bureaucratic exercise of application and vetting and the resulting stigma of identifying low-income students.
That was 18 months ago. And the experience with the federal waiver program was positive, she said, with student participation rates going up. Parents who got used to the program will learn come fall that what was free will no longer be. Low-income parents and school administrators will again have to fill out and process applications that show income levels.
Under the National School Lunch Program, families with income below 130 percent of the federal poverty level can receive free meals and those between 130 percent and 185 percent of poverty can receive meals at reduced prices. The USDA estimates that in 2020, 76.9 percent of all meals under the program were free or at reduced prices.
The pandemic waivers expanded the program and while there were hopes that Congress would extend it, the money was not included in the springtime COVID relief package. While some Democrats pointed fingers at Republicans, President Biden had not included the extension and its $11 billion annual cost in his $22 billion pandemic supplemental request.
States have sought to do the work themselves. California and Maine adopted universal free lunch programs. Colorado voters will decide in November whether to pay for the program with state tax dollars.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz proposed using $183 million a year from the state revenue surplus to pay for school meals for all. That cost would grow to nearly $400 million in the next two-year budget period. While that expansion was included in House File 1729 by Rep. Sydney Jordan, DFL-Minneapolis, it was not included in the House education omnibus bill.
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School lunch reimbursement rates usually do not increase during the school year. However, this year, due to the pandemic, USDA allowed schools to benefit from the highest rates available, which are normally reserved for the USDA Summer Food Service Program (SFSP). By law, these summer rates adjust for inflation annually in January.
This adjustment is well-timed to ensure the purchasing power of schools keeps pace with the cost of living. Schools receiving these reimbursement rates can stretch their operating budgets further during these tough times, while giving families fewer meal expenses to worry about each school day.
At the start of the 2021-2022 school year, the SFSP lunch reimbursement rate for participating schools was already 15% higher than the standard reimbursement for a free lunch. Now, because of higher food costs and other circumstances, schools will receive an additional 25 cents per lunch. Taken together, schools are receiving 22% more for school lunches than they would under normal conditions.
The percentage of students receiving free or reduced price lunch is often used as a proxy measure for the percentage of students living in poverty. While the percentage of students receiving free or reduced price lunch can provide some information about relative poverty, it should not be confused with the actual percentage of students in poverty enrolled in school. In 2012, just over half of public school children were eligible for free/reduced price lunches. In contrast, the actual poverty rate of public school students was 22 percent. Despite the correlation between the two measures, it is important to understand that they differ in important ways and that the difference is growing.
As the largest federal program for elementary and secondary schools, the National School Lunch Program provided meals to more than 31 million children each school day in 2012. All lunches provided by the National School Lunch Program are considered subsidized to some extent because meal-service programs at schools must operate as non-profit programs. While all students at participating schools are eligible for regular priced lunches through the National School Lunch Program, there are multiple ways in which a child can become eligible for a free/reduced price lunch. Traditionally, family income has been used to establish eligibility for free/reduced price lunch. 2b1af7f3a8