The (Not Really) Largest Increase Ever For School Lunch Programs

March 24, 2010

by Mark Bishop, Deputy Director

One speaking point we've been hearing a lot lately is that Sen. Blanche Lincoln's current proposal for re-authorization of the Child Nutrition Act includes the single largest funding increase ever proposed for school food. But that's not the full picture.

When you look at the legislation as a whole and include all the related programs (aid to Women, Infants and Children, Farm to School, the Child and Adult Care Food Program,
food safety measures, etc.) then yes, it's a pretty big bill. When it
comes to school food funding, the fact is this: of the $450 million in
the bill, the amount allocated for school food is six cents per meal.
This isn't adequate, and it certainly isn't the largest increase we've
ever seen. 

What hasn't been widely reported lately is that
the school food program receives annual increases to cover inflation
and the rising cost of food. Because the Child Nutrition Act is
reauthorized only every five years, this annual adjustment is intended
to relieve some of the pressure of rising food costs in the years
between reauthorization. It's not the result of massive advocacy: it's
a normal procedural adjustment.

How does the currently proposed six cent increase compare to regular annual increases in recent years? Pretty poorly.

Reimbursements-graph-520

Source: USDA Food and Nutrition Services

Six
cents would actually be the smallest increase offered to schools in at
least six years. Last year schools received eleven cents. And that was
considered the cost of doing business.

In a time when schools
across the country are dealing with massive budget shortfalls and
slashing staff, programs and budgets, they are being offered an
increase that will barely cover the escalating cost of food. And that's
not to mention the fact that most schools already have to run their
food programs at a deficit. Or the fact that we need to improve the
healthfulness and quality of the meals they're serving.

Six
cents would not be a victory for school food reform. We can do better
than this, and we need to talk honestly about what this money would
really mean (and not mean) for schools. You can raise your voice for increased funding here.

Clarification (March 24): We missed an important point and our
friends at the School Nutrition Association have corrected us. To
clarify: while the annual increase in reimbursement rates does happen
every year, this is the first time that the reimbursement has been
increased in the Child Nutrition Act itself. This means that schools
could receive the increase from reauthorization in addition to an
annual increase for cost-of-food adjustments. Thanks to SNA for setting
us straight.

As you can see from the dollar amounts, the
proposed funding — even when combined with a probable annual
adjustment — is not enough to fundamentally change school food. It's
still less than the annual increases that schools have received in
recent years. We're glad to see that an increase will be included in
the Child Nutrition Act itself for the first time, but we know that
schools need more than this to make the changes we'd like to
see in serving food that truly supports kids' health and learning.