The USDA estimates that the new school meal standards will force local school districts and states to absorb $1.22 billion in new food, labor and administrative costs in Fiscal Year 2015, up from $362 million in FY 2014. Consequently, the School Nutrition Association (SNA) is again calling on Congress to take immediate steps to ease the financial strain on cash-strapped school districts.
According to the USDA, “increases in food and labor costs are equivalent to about 10 cents for each reimbursable school lunch and about 27 cents for each reimbursable breakfast in FY 2015.” But to manage these costs, school meal programs received only six additional cents for each reimbursable lunch and no additional funds for breakfast.
School districts are already experiencing the financial strain as these increased costs are coupled with a decrease in student lunch participation in 49 states, says SNA, citing USDA data that shows that since schools began making required menu adjustments, more than one million fewer students choose school lunch each day. This declining participation cuts revenue for school districts already grappling with higher food and labor costs.
"School nutrition professionals have led the way in promoting improved diets for students and are committed to serving healthy meals," says SNA CEO Patricia Montague, CAE. "Despite all of these efforts, fewer students are eating school meals, and the escalating costs of meeting overly prescriptive regulations are putting school meal programs in financial jeopardy."
School meal programs are prohibited from carrying losses over from year to year, so when cafeterias lose money, school districts must cover the losses. "USDA or Congress must act to provide greater flexibility under the rules before school meal programs become a financial liability for the school districts they serve," Montague says.
SNA supports most of new school food regulations, but is requesting some flexibility under the rules to help schools limit waste, manage costs and encourage more students to choose healthy school lunches.