Another Look at the True Costs of Outsourcing Healthy School Food

March 18, 2010

By Mark Bishop, Deputy Director

Revolution Foods is doing great work, providing healthy school food programs. We've seen a good amount of media coverage about Revolution Foods, and we've responded to it. This NY Times article is not that different, although it's a little more of a big-picture overview – it talks about the challenges of providing healthy food in schools, it talks about creative approaches to address it, and it even talks about the need for a robust Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization. All the right points are in it. As it says…

…Revolution Foods adopted higher standards than the government requires for school meal programs. The meals are prepared fresh daily and feature foods free of artificial preservatives, colors, flavors and sweeteners. Every lunch includes fresh fruit and vegetables.
But the article made me realize how unfair it is to be in school food service. When you read that an outside company can provide a meal for “just under $3 apiece“, or how a particular business is figuring out how to run a school food program, it sounds great. It sounds as if outsourcing is the answer.
 
In reality, a school still needs to cover the cost associated with running, staffing, cleaning and overseeing the lunch room. That could run as high as $1 per pupil per day. I mean, schools are told to prepare healthy meals, but then for a large proportion of their student population (in Chicago, around 85 percent), they are told, “Now do this on only $2.68 – and that has to cover your overhead, labor and food costs. And by the way, you can't lose money”.
 
At least one school district, Santa Cruz City Schools, found costs of outsourcing too high.

I of course don't have any problems with creative ways to get healthier food into schools. But if the media is going to highlight these types of programs, I'd love to see them address the true costs to the school — and then highlight the need to make up this imbalance.  
 
It's important for people to understand the complete picture.

We need to adequately fund schools so we can provide healthy meals. We need more money for better food, capital funds to rebuild kitchens, grants to connect kids to local agriculture, improved nutrition standards…and how about support for wellness teams to increase community accountability? 

Improving school food won't happen without a robust reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, no matter who is providing the meal. To raise your voice for increased funding for healthy school meals in the upcoming reauthorization, check out HSC's Child Nutrition Act action center.