Federal Lunch Changes Cost Schools

By Assemblyman Will Barclay
School lunch purchases are on the decline.

According to the New York School Nutrition Association, more than 19 million fewer meals across the state were sold during the 2012-13 school year than the year before. In the 2011-12 school year, 94 million meals were sold but in 2012-13, only 75 million were sold.

The decrease in sales coincided with the federal Health Hunger-Free Kids Act, which attempts to curb childhood obesity. Sadly, this federal mandate, though well meaning, has left many school lunch rooms with three problems: wasted food, loss of sales, and higher food costs.

The new guidelines, outlined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Nutrition Service’s National School Lunch Program, restricts calories, encourages whole grains, more protein, and decreases portions.

At each meal, students must take a fruit and a vegetable whether they plan to eat it or not.

Reduced sodium changes are on the horizon, which presents schools with more challenges to make food taste good without as much salt.

While these are healthier options, they’ve proven not too popular with the kids.

Many who work in cafeterias and schools say a lot of food and milk is going to waste. Even the federal government has acknowledged food waste and shared flashy infographics on its website that gives schools ideas on how to prevent school food waste.

Some local districts have opted out of the program and left federal reimbursable dollars on the table, in an attempt to sell more lunches and keep their program sustainable.

Other lower-wealth districts do not have a choice and are beholden to the Act’s guidelines.

Another trend is increased food prices. As these mandates took effect, food prices went up.

According to the government, these changes are meant to encourage healthy eating.

However, what these changes have really done is  created problems for schools that have had to cut staff and dip into fund reserves to cover costs related to the loss of sales. Some school lunch programs, which were previously self-sustaining for the most part, are operating in the red.

This has revealed other problems with the state’s reimbursement rate, which at 6 cents per lunch is well below current costs.

I’ve advocated for an increase in the past and plan to do so this year, as it was not granted last year.

It’s unfortunate that yet another federal mandate is taking the place of local control and discretion.

In some cases, this has meant staff cuts.

Eventually, more taxpayer dollars will go to subsidize more of the cost so lunch rooms can continue to operate.

While encouraging healthy eating is commendable, there is a real question as to whether the mandates are accomplishing their goal.

It is difficult to say school lunches are the reason why we have an obesity problem in the United States.

If you have any questions or comments on this or any other state issue, or if you would like to be added to my mailing list or receive my newsletter, please contact my office.

My office can be reached by mail at 200 N. Second St., Fulton, NY 13069, by e-mail at [email protected] or by calling (315) 598-5185.