By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook
Hundreds of school food service directors from around the country will be fanning out on Capitol Hill today to lobby their Congressman. What's at the top of their legislative agenda? Stopping implementation of Section 205 of the recently approved child nutrition re-authorization.
That's the provision that would require most of the country's 100,000 schools to start raising the lunch price they charge children who don't qualify as low-income.
The School Nutrition Association, which represents some 53,000 food service workers, is asking Congress to amend the new law to require pilot testing of the price hike mandate before applying it to all schools.
School officials fear that raising prices is bound to cause many paying students to abandon the program, upsetting the cafeteria business model, perhaps costing kitchen jobs, and turning school lunch into a welfare program that stigmatizes truly needy children who depend on it for food.
Congress billed Section 205 as restoring equity to school lunch pricing. Currently, most schools charge paying students less than what the government deems the full cost of making a lunch, currently $2.72. Here in the District of Columbia, for instance, lunch only costs $1.50, and that's hardly uncommon. The same price holds in New York City as well.
Some advocates see this as unfair, since it means poor children effectively are supporting kids who otherwise are considered financially able to pay full price.
The legislation approved in December would require schools to raise their prices annually by an amount equal to the rate of inflation plus two percent. As I described in a post yesterday, most schools would take more than 10 years to catch up their prices. Nearly half would take more than 20 years.
Not all food service directors favor blocking the price hikes. As I heard yesterday at the SNA's legislative conference, some see Section 205 as a convenient way to work around school boards that are reluctant to raise prices when schools need the extra revenue.
But others fear that targeting middle-class students will cause many of them--especially those on the margins--to abandon the government-sponsored hot lunch, turning it into a welfare program and stigmatizing children who truly need the food.
In fact, federal subsidies for school lunch originally were intended to support all children equally, regardless of income. Those subsidies, known as "Section 4" funds, continue to provide schools with 26 cents from the federal government for every lunch purchased by students who pay full price.
It was only later that Congress agreed to provide extra money so that needy children could eat school lunch for free, or at a reduced price. The SNA argues that federal support should be viewed as benefiting the entire program, and not be parsed to pit one income group against another.
The pricing issue is likely to be a one of the most important challenges school meal programs going forward, one that received very lilttle attention during the legislative process. The SNA believes a simple appropriation amendment could put Section 205 on hold--at least temporarily.
But food service directors also have their eye on new meal standards working their way through the USDA. As they heard from nutrition experts yesterday, nobody yet knows how they will manage to reduce the salt in food by half and still produce meals anyone would actually want to eat.