Extra lunch money hidden in child nutrition bill

At long last, Congress has passed the child nutrition bill. Among its important achievements, it bans (some) junk food in schools, authorizes new programs to automatically enroll needy kids for free meals and gives a small, if virtually unprecedented, boost — 6 cents per lunch — to the federal reimbursement rate that pays for much of what appears on students’ trays.

Michael Flippo - Fotolia.com

Supporters immediately hailed the bill as historic, in large part because that 6 cents is the first increase of the reimbursement rate in 30 years.  But buried inside this bill, which has been stalled in Congress for two years, is a provision that will, ultimately, nearly double the rate hike that has everyone celebrating. Over the next decade, this provision could raise about $2.6 billion for school lunch, the equivalent of a roughly 5-cent additional increase per lunch.

Section 205 requires school districts to ensure that the federal funding for meals for low-income children actually be spent on those children, rather than to subsidize the meals of higher-income children who pay for school lunch. To those uninitiated in the byzantine world of school lunch, it might seem odd — even illegal — that federal money would be used to subsidize school lunch for students who could already afford it.

So here’s a quick primer on school lunch. Public schools are allocated a certain amount of money for each lunch they serve that meets federal nutrition standards. Districts receive the highest reimbursement for meals served free or at a reduced price to children whose household income is below 185 percent of the poverty line. They also receive a small amount for students whose household income is above that level and who pay for meals.

A well-run school district, one might imagine, would price the so-called paid meals at a level that, when combined with the federal subsidy, covers the cost of producing the meal. But individual school districts set the prices. And local politicians, fearful of upsetting parents/voters, are loathe to raise the price for meals. The result: Students who can afford to pay for school lunch pay less than it costs to produce their meals, and government money allocated for low-income students makes up the difference.

This bit of illogic was documented last January in an analysis by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. According to the report, schools received an average of $1.81 (including the government subsidy) for a paid meal in 2004-2005. That’s 81 percent of what the federal government pays for the same meal for a low-income student. It’s 79 percent of the $2.28 that schools say it costs to produce a tray of, say, chicken nuggets, milk and canned green beans.

“As a result,” the authors concluded, “higher reimbursement rates would not necessarily result in school meal programs purchasing healthier foods. Instead, increased reimbursements could be used for any number of purposes, including keeping down the price of meals for better-off students or subsidizing less nutritious foods.”

Section 205 eliminates that risk. Over time, it will require some schools to raise the price of meals for higher-income children. The bill also ends another bit of shady accounting in our school-lunch program, by forbidding meal reimbursements from subsidizing unhealthy snacks sold outside the lunch line.  Taken together, the two new regulations protect the integrity of school lunch. An historic bill, indeed.

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19 Comments

  1. Posted December 3, 2010 at 11:04 AM | Permalink

    Dang, Jane, you beat me to the punch on this one. It’s a great subject for discussion, raising the price of “full price” lunch.

    But I’d just like to point out again, this six cents that Congress just approved is not the first increase in the reimbursement rate. The reimbursement rate is subject to change every year according to fluctuations in the Consumer Price Index. This year, for instance, the rate was increased four cents–from $2.68 to $2.72–to compensate for inflation.

  2. Scott in Boulder
    Posted December 3, 2010 at 11:52 AM | Permalink

    More money does NOT equate to a better result. Sorry, but this a specious premise and especially so when it comes to bureaucrats providing “services” to Johnnie and Suzie.

    Child nutrition? Has it really come to this? Parents are so dumbed-down that they’re looking to Uncle Sam to stuff your children? “But, it helps low income families at least get one nutritious meal a day! Isn’t that the right thing to do?” Personally, if we were farm animals I would expect nothing less than having a trough full of food pushed in front me. The only difference is that they’re called “students” but the results are much the same: Genetically Modified Fodder fed to en mass.

    All the good intentions aside, considering that most school lunch programs are supplied by the likes of Sysco and US Food, at the heart of this so-called nutrition solution is Industrial Farming and Food Processing. It’s most definitely not local food and has many thousands of added shipping miles, handling charges and vastly expanded carbon footprint. FYI, for every calorie of food there’s an added 11 calories of fossil fuel to get it to Johnnie/Suzie’s bio-degradable lunch plate. How sustainable, hmm?

    In closing, please allow me to rebuff the unctuous hyperbole. “Integrity of school lunch?” What the hell does this mean? Considering the the fact that, like it or not, we’ve all been eating GMO food without being told about it, without any labeling requirements, pretty much puts the lie to “Food integrity” courtesy of our FDA, USDA and EPA. The multiple health effects of GM foods have weakened millions and put generations at-risk health-wise. The only correlation I can see in this story is “hidden lunch money only buys more food with hidden health risks” which, in my way of seeing the world, is anything but nutritious.

  3. Posted December 3, 2010 at 12:15 PM | Permalink

    Hi Jane – The Congressional Budget Office says that increasing paid meal prices to match the federal reimbursement rate would result in a drop in participation in school meals (See page 15 of the CBO report on HR 5504 – Section 409 was similar to the Senate bill’s Section 205 – http://www.cbo.gov/ftpdocs/118xx/doc11821/hr5504.pdf).

    No doubt, when you increase prices, many families, particularly those struggling in a tough economic climate, will drop out of the program altogether. No one knows how severe the decline in participation will be, and that’s a risky gamble to play with a program that is vital to the nutrition and well being of millions of school children. Even Secretary Vilsack, in an exchange with Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA) at the House Education and Labor Committee’s hearing on HR 5504, acknowledged that there’s little data on the issue and he does not know for sure how the rising prices will impact the program (See the archived webcast at http://edlabor.house.gov/hearings/2010/07/hr5504-improving-nutrition-for.shtml starting at 1 hour 21 minutes.).

    But, think about what $2.72 can purchase you on a dollar value menu. Many students who have that money will abandon their cafeterias in favor of local fast food joints. Declining paid meal participation increases the social stigma on children who rely on free and reduced price meals, and the resulting loss of revenue for cash-strapped school nutrition programs can hamper efforts to offer more healthy choices.

    Furthermore, does it make economic sense for the price of a meal to be the same in NYC as in Huntington, WV?

    On another note, thanks for your coverage of the Child Nutrition Reauthorization debate – this was a huge victory for us all, and the 6 cents will make a difference on school meal trays. In many communities 6 cents in the difference between canned and fresh produce or white and whole wheat bread.

  4. Posted December 3, 2010 at 1:00 PM | Permalink

    Good work on this.

  5. Posted December 3, 2010 at 1:16 PM | Permalink

    Hey Ed,
    Thanks. And your point is noted. But there’s a difference between a Congressional increase and the inflation increases that Congress provides annually. This is the first time they’ve authorized extra funds in addition to those regular, what I call, “cost of living” jumps.

  6. Posted December 3, 2010 at 1:19 PM | Permalink

    You are right that more money doesn’t mean better food. But with more money the schools could choose to buy better food. The reason they say they often don’t is because it is more expensive. As for whether schools should try do to more than providing calories, I think they should. It doesn’t mean they hold the full responsibility for teaching kids about healthy food — or providing it. But they certainly should do their best to provide good food, in my opinion, because it’s the right thing to do and because it’s part of their mandate.

  7. Posted December 3, 2010 at 4:25 PM | Permalink

    Thanks for posting this, Diane. I know that SNA did not support it. It is, I suppose, a risk but so is the flip side: the feds paying for meals for kids who, according to the guidelines, can afford it.

  8. Posted December 4, 2010 at 7:28 AM | Permalink

    I think the correct language to describe this 6 cents would be “the first non-inflationary increase.” I’ve seen a number of other mainstream reporters embrace this phrase, which dispels the notion that somehow the federal government has not raised the reimbursement rate at all for the last 30 years, which clearly isn’t true. It goes up every year without any intervention from Conress.

  9. Julia
    Posted December 10, 2010 at 10:09 PM | Permalink

    If nothing else, it’s a start. However, when families are given access to good, nutritious food that is healthy for the eater, the land and the growers, the children are the ones they will feed first. (I know I am paraphrasing a food activist, but for the life of me, I can’t remember her name to give her credit.)

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  14. Posted December 22, 2010 at 3:58 PM | Permalink

    You are right that more money doesn’t mean better food. But with more money the schools could choose to buy better food. The reason they say they often don’t is because it is more expensive. As for whether schools should try do to more than providing calories, I think they should. It doesn’t mean they hold the full responsibility for teaching kids about healthy food — or providing it. But they certainly should do their best to provide good food, in my opinion, because it’s the right thing to do and because it’s part of their mandate.

  15. Posted December 23, 2010 at 6:39 PM | Permalink

    Hey Ed, Thanks. And your point is noted. But there’s a difference between a Congressional increase and the inflation increases that Congress provides annually. This is the first time they’ve authorized extra funds in addition to those regular, what I call, “cost of living” jumps.

  16. Posted December 23, 2010 at 9:46 PM | Permalink

    More money does NOT equate to a better result. Sorry, but this a specious premise and especially so when it comes to bureaucrats providing “services” to Johnnie and Suzie. Child nutrition? Has it really come to this? Parents are so dumbed-down that they’re looking to Uncle Sam to stuff your children? “But, it helps low income families at least get one nutritious meal a day! Isn’t that the right thing to do?” Personally, if we were farm animals I would expect nothing less than having a trough full of food pushed in front me. The only difference is that they’re called “students” but the results are much the same: Genetically Modified Fodder fed to en mass. All the good intentions aside, considering that most school lunch programs are supplied by the likes of Sysco and US Food, at the heart of this so-called nutrition solution is Industrial Farming and Food Processing. It’s most definitely not local food and has many thousands of added shipping miles, handling charges and vastly expanded carbon footprint. FYI, for every calorie of food there’s an added 11 calories of fossil fuel to get it to Johnnie/Suzie’s bio-degradable lunch plate. How sustainable, hmm? In closing, please allow me to rebuff the unctuous hyperbole. “Integrity of school lunch?” What the hell does this mean? Considering the the fact that, like it or not, we’ve all been eating GMO food without being told about it, without any labeling requirements, pretty much puts the lie to “Food integrity” courtesy of our FDA, USDA and EPA. The multiple health effects of GM foods have weakened millions and put generations at-risk health-wise. The only correlation I can see in this story is “hidden lunch money only buys more food with hidden health risks” which, in my way of seeing the world, is anything but nutritious.

  17. Posted December 24, 2010 at 2:36 AM | Permalink

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4 Trackbacks

  1. By And it just gets better… | Liz Snyder on December 3, 2010 at 11:03 AM

    [...] The article: Extra Lunch Money Hidden in Child Nutrition Act [...]

  2. [...] the Child Nutrition Act seems to be laid to rest for now (and happily so, for the most part), the debate about the Food Safety Modernization Act [...]

  3. By Ten Top Food News Stories of 2010: Part One on January 2, 2011 at 10:26 AM

    [...] But change is coming. This year, Jamie Oliver brought his Food Revolution to the States, an anonymous teacher chronicled what she ate every day in her school cafeteria in her blog Fed Up With Lunch, and President Obama signed into law the much-anticipated Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The legislation bans some junk food, and gives a small, though historically significant, six-cent increase per child per lunch (the first such boost in the reimbursement rate in 30 years), and there may be more lunch money tucked inside the bill to boot. [...]

  4. By Food is fashionable? Not in Congress. on June 14, 2011 at 8:27 AM

    [...] when things were looking up — more money for school lunch, a new plate instead of a food pyramid – Congress steps up with a really bad idea. Today, the [...]

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    Jane BlackI am a Brooklyn-based food writer who covers food politics, trends and sustainability issues. My work appears in the Washington Post, (where I was a staff writer), the New York Times, Slate, New York magazine and other publications. On this site, you will find my blog and links to my written work and my Washington Post column, Smarter Food.
      

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