BALANCED BUDGETS OR BALANCED MEALS?
School cafeterias are essentially small businesses. For the most part, they exist independently from a district's budget and are expected to break even. Food is the only aspect of your kid's school day that has this burden; everything else -- from textbooks to sports teams to computer labs -- is paid for by school-district funds (your taxes plus money from the federal and state governments).
The average price parents will pay for an elementary school lunch this academic year is $1.86, according to the School Nutrition Association, a group based in Alexandria, VA, that represents 55,000 school food program directors nationwide. Yet the cost to produce that meal is $2.92, a 25-cent increase from last year.
So why not charge parents more to close that gap? School food directors say privately that the school-board members who control the prices resist raising them over worry about larger families: Even $3 a day times three kids adds up. So schools keep prices low. "This is a penny business where every penny counts," says Erik Peterson, spokesman for the School Nutrition Association.
And serving processed foods saves some of those pennies because they can be reheated easily by anyone on staff. "We do very little scratch cooking," says JoAnne Robinett, student-nutrition supervisor of Beavercreek City Schools, outside of Dayton, OH. "It's just not economically feasible, and since raw items in the kitchen up the contamination risk, we'd need more workers certified in food safety." Employees trained in safety, nutrition, and the necessary skills for cooking from scratch are both hard to come by and expensive when factoring in hourly wages and, often, union contracts.
To get a nutritionally sound lunch, parents would need to pay about $4, says Ann Cooper, a leading advocate for healthier food who is in charge of school food service in the Berkeley Unified School District in California. She also reports that the government moves surplus agricultural commodities into the school-lunch system, much of it canned goods and processed chicken products -- and very little that's fresh.
Along with what parents pay for lunches, schools get cash back from the government for every meal they serve to a student who, based on his or her family's income, qualifies for a free or reduced-price lunch. This school year, that reimbursement is $2.57 for every free meal and $2.17 for a reduced-priced meal.
At a conference in Washington, DC, last year, Southern California school-lunch directors lobbied for higher reimbursements. To drive home what they face, they gave politicians a bag of coins totaling $2.49 -- the reimbursement they got last school year for a free meal. "We asked them to give us back $1.39 for labor," says Geri Dee, director of food service for the Hacienda La Puente Unified School District. Then the directors asked for 28 cents for milk, 40 cents for fruit, and 11 cents for the utensils, tray, and napkin. "All of them looked shocked because all that was left in their hands was 31 cents for the entree," Dee recalls.
There's a paradox here, though: While government reimbursements don't seem like enough, they are still higher than the full price paid by parents. That means schools in poorer districts have more guaranteed income to work with. "We found that here in the DC area, the food was better in the schools with a lot of free and reduced-price lunches," says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which is based in Washington, DC.
When it comes to budgets, nutrition has a hard time competing with the pressure to teach students to score well on academic tests, mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act, experts say. "Nutrition or school lunches are not mentioned in that Act once," says Reginald Washington, M.D., chief medical officer for the Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children in Denver and vice chair of Action for Healthy Kids. As far as funding goes, cafeteria meals rank low -- really low -- in the age of standards-based testing, says Cooper. "Food isn't even thought of as an educational component," she adds.