Report: More Children Eating Healthy School Meals During Economic DownturnMore than 79% of School Districts Report an Increase in the Number of Free School Lunches Served
ALEXANDRIA, Va., (December 11, 2008) – High unemployment rates and families’ proactive efforts to save money have resulted in significantly more students eating lunch at school. According to Saved by the Lunch Bell: As Economy Sinks, School Nutrition Program Participation Rises, a report released today by the School Nutrition Association, nationwide an average of 425,000 more students are participating in free and reduced school lunch programs. More than three quarters of districts surveyed reported an increase in free school lunches provided, meaning the effects are being felt in districts across the country. Because the school-based child nutrition programs are entitlement programs, federal reimbursements will be provided to schools for each meal served; however, the amount of reimbursement provided continues to fall short of the actual costs associated with producing each school meal.
The survey of over 130 school nutrition directors from 38 states found that 79% of districts saw an increase in the number of free lunches served while nearly 65% saw an increase in the number of reduced price lunches served over last year. Participation by students paying the full price for school lunch decreased in 48% of districts, reflecting a potential shift in the economic status of many American families. Almost 60% of survey respondents reported an overall increase in National School Lunch Program (NSLP) participation, with over 69% reporting an increase in participation in the School Breakfast Program (SBP) in spite of a slight decline in school enrollment this school year compared to last school year.
While the report is another indicator of grim economic news, SNA president Dr. Katie Wilson, SNS, emphasized that, “this year, when hunger is more common, more students are able to eat a balanced, nutritious meal at school.” Meals served under the NSLP must meet nutrition guidelines based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, therefore no more than 30% of calories can come from fat and less than 10% from saturated fat. School lunches provide one-third of the Recommended Dietary Allowances of protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, iron, calcium and calories over the course of one week of menus. Students who eat school lunches consume fewer calories from fat than students who bring lunch from home, according to research conducted by Dr. Alice Jo Rainville of Eastern Michigan University. Additionally, school lunches contain three times as many dairy products, twice as much fruit and seven times the vegetable amounts compared to lunches from home.
As school nutrition professionals feed the increasing number of students participating, 88% of school nutrition directors reported this past August that the NSLP reimbursement of $2.57 per free lunch served was not sufficient for their program to cover the costs of producing a meal. Based on an estimated average cost to prepare a school lunch (including labor, food and other inputs) of about $2.92, and revenue of anywhere from $2.52 to $2.77 to offset that cost (from federal reimbursements, commodity entitlement and the average price paid for a school lunch) school nutrition programs are experiencing a potential loss of at least $4.5 million per school day based on 30 million school lunches provided. School nutrition directors continue to call on Congress to enact legislation, through an economic stimulus package or child nutrition reauthorization, that would provide an adequate meal reimbursement to ensure nutritious school meals continue to be provided to children.
Any child at a participating school may purchase a meal through the National School Lunch Program. Children from families with incomes at or below 130% of the poverty level are eligible for free meals. Those with incomes between 130% and 185% of the poverty level are eligible for reduced-price meals, for which students can be charged no more than 40 cents. During the current school year, 130% of the poverty level is $27,560 for a family of four; 185% is $39,220). Children from families with incomes over 185% of poverty pay a full price, though their meals are still subsidized to some extent. Local school boards generally set their own prices for full-price (paid) meals, with the national average at $2.08 after many districts raised their meal prices earlier this year. Paid school lunch still represents a bargain when compared to the national average cost to prepare a lunch from home, estimated to be $3.41. School nutrition programs are required to operate their meal services as non-profit programs.
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.