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No Free Lunch...


A number of stories from around the country about schools bailing on the National School Lunch Program have recently come to our attention. The rationale for the move typically involves the costs of compliance with federal school meal mandates, costs that are thought to outweigh the benefits of the cash that comes with NSLP participation (the stories have focused on lunch but obviously these arguments go for other federal school meal programs as well).

Of course, the abandon ship option is much more palatable for schools/districts with minimal numbers of students qualifying for free or reduced price meals that must depend on cash sales for the bulk of their revenues. Most schools leaving NSLP say they will continue to provide subsidized meals for their low-income students out of their own pockets, using revenue increases they hope to generate from being able to develop their own menus. They also maintain they will continue to serve meals that are nutritious and healthful even though they may not strictly accord with federal NSLP standards.

There are no hard numbers yet on whether this is indeed a trend or merely an anecdotal blip. A School Nutrition Association survey of its membership last year found only a few districts pulling the trigger on NSLP withdrawal or even seriously considering it. Last fall, the USDA reported that only 524 out of about 100,000 NSLP participating schools opted out for the 2013-14 school year. That's about a half of one percent.

I wonder if that's as true today, though. In working on our K-12 Power Players feature last year as well as in talking with school nutrition professionals across the country on a regular basis, I've sensed a fair amount of frustration with the new school meal mandates. Directors almost universally remain committed to serving nutritious food to their young customers, but they want a little more flexibility than the feds are currently willing to offer. They don't like being forced to serve things that they know will only feed the trash cans and it doesn't help that the subsidy levels are in many cases inadequate to cover the increased cost of compliance.

This doesn't mean I expect a mass rush for the exits. There's a reason NSLP participation is nearly universal, especially among public schools. Districts with high levels of free/reduced price students have no realistic alternative to NSLP. And in a bad economy, more families qualify for federal assistance, swelling free/reduced rolls.

However, I wonder if a growing number of wealthier districts that have taken participation hits and/or heard complaints about the new requirements might not be reconsidering their NSLP participation. If government subsidies represent only a minimal part of your revenue flow but the accompanying mandates significantly affect your ability to grow the cash sales that are your program's primary revenue source, what would you do?

The trend, if it is one, raises a number of interesting questions. Among them:
Where is the cutoff point for dropping NSLP participation? Is it a free/reduced percentage under 10%? Under 20%? Higher? And will this move higher in the future if frustration grows, participation levels continue to decline and go-your-own-way best practices start to emerge.

Will districts begin to split their participation, breaking off their wealthier school sites from the program while leaving the rest to receive the federal subsidies (and live with the mandates). And if they do, how will this play locally?

• In schools/districts that break off from NSLP and continue to subsidize their low-income students out of revenues generated from cash sales, will there be a backlash from parents of cash students, especially those just over the subsidy cutoff point, resenting having to pay higher prices to subsidize other parents' kids.

• Will a significant wave of NSLP cancellations prompt Congress or USDA to modify some of the more controversial aspects of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act?

How far will schools and districts designing their own menus go to appeal to kids? How much nutritional compromise will there be appetite for? Will there be a slippery slope?

Is this trend an opportunity or a setback for contract management firms looking to add K-12 clients? In recent years, contractors have gotten a lot of mileage out of making a case for professional management of school meal programs in an era of increasingly complex mandates. If schools can design their own programs, that argument is moot. However, a new case can be made that programs and practices developed and tested by contractors can give a district a sound meal program outside NSLP guidelines that still balances sound nutrition and kid appeal.

I am interested to hear from our readers in the school nutrition community about this issue. Please email me at [email protected] with any feedback, or leave a message in the comment section below.

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