Things are tough for everyone these days, not least for those working in child nutrition programs in the nation's K-12 schools. Increasing food costs, expensive new mandates and swelling ranks of children qualifying for subsidized meals because their families have hit hard times have strained school foodservice budgets.
So where does the School Nutrition Association (SNA), which represents the interests of some 55,000 school nutrition professionals across the country, go for a some relief? Yep, the U.S. Congress, which nutrition advocates hope is still in a generous mood after its $700 billion bailout of banking and Wall Street interests late last year.
With the National School Lunch and Breakfast acts due for reauthorization later this year (they expire in September unless extended), SNA has the perfect opportunity to approach legislators. Some of its requests will require expanded funding while others are shifts in policy designed to strengthen school meal programs relative to competitive foods sold on school grounds.
Topping the funding-related priority list:
an increase in per-meal reimbursement by 35 cents for all meals;
expanding the “free meal” category to 185% of the poverty line (in effect eliminating the “reduced price” category);
making federal reimbursement rate updates semi-annual;
providing 10 cents in USDA commodities for each school breakfast served.
In addition, SNA wants the Secretary of Agriculture to have statuary authority to regulate the sale of all foods and beverages on school campuses. The organization also would like USDA to standardize all school meals reimbursed by USDA to make it easier for suppliers to design products for child nutrition programs and reduce procurement costs for those programs.
The key request is undoubtedly the reimbursement increase. SNA says the current $2.57 free-meal reimbursement is not only below the $2.92 average cost of producing a school lunch, but is inadequate to keep pace with rising costs, not to mention the costs of implementing the federally mandated Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
SNA notes that along with the boost for free meal reimbursements, the rates for reimbursement of other category meals should also be adjusted upward to reflect the actual cost environment.
In addition to these top priorities, there are a number of issues SNA would like to see addressed, says Erik Peterson, SNA's director of public awareness. One is funding for equipment assistance.
“That was something that was part of the program until the early 80s. We think it would be important to reinstate, especially in the context of new nutrition requirements that often require different equipment to execute, and also because of the movement to go to more from-scratch preparation.”
Peterson also cites nutrition education, whether in the classroom or the cafeteria, as another key initiative that requires funding attention.