In an economic climate where many families are literally counting pennies to make ends meet, a higher price on anything is rarely good news. For some parents, increases on school lunch costs across the country are putting yet another crimp in budgets that are already stretched about as tight as they can get. However, higher prices are just what many schools are introducing this year, as legislation that passed the White House last year goes into effect for this academic school year. The good news is that along with those higher prices come healthier menu selections that promise to keep kids in top learning condition throughout the school day.
The Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010
Many of the price increases seen in school cafeterias this year can be attributed to the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 that was signed into law by President Obama last December. This act, championed by First Lady Michelle Obama, takes a number of steps to ensure school-age children get the proper nutrition and that families that cannot afford school lunches receive federal assistance in this area. According to the USDA Food and Nutrition website, the programs impacted by the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act include:
- National School Lunch Program
- School Breakfast Program
- Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC)
- Summer Food Service Program
- Child and Adult Care Food Service Program
While people across the country stand to benefit from one or many of these programs, the one that stands to hit parents in the pocketbook this year is the National School Lunch Program. As nutritional requirements begin to change for school lunches, the price to prepare healthier fare also goes up. In many school districts, that means passing on at least a portion of the price increase to families – some of whom are barely able to afford the current pricing. As a result of the changes, many school districts are getting an earful from parents on exactly why schools had to increase school lunch prices at such a tough economic time.
New Requirements for School Lunches
Under the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act, school lunches are now subject to the following guidelines posted on the Food Research and Action Center website:
- The Secretary of Agriculture now has the authority to establish nutritional standards for all public schools across the country
- Nutritional requirements by the Secretary of Agriculture will include more whole grains and fresh produce, and less starchy and high-fat items.
- Schools must limit milk offerings to low-fat options
- Schools must provide access to free water for students during meal times
- Schools that adhere to the new nutritional requirements will be awarded additional federal reimbursement
While these requirements may look relatively easy and basic on the surface, they can be quite costly for some school districts to implement. Still, school districts across the country are looking for ways to fund the healthier lunch program, even if it means dipping into the pockets of families that have students at the schools.
Schools Raising Prices, Taking the Heat
A recent New York Times article reported on some of the school districts that are going forward with school lunch price increases for this year – and taking the heat because of it. In Seymour, Connecticut, a town that had not raised school lunch prices in for many years, the district ended up hiking the price by 25 cents, bringing elementary lunches to $2.25, middle school lunches to $2.50 and high school lunches to $2.75. A number of districts in New York City also raised lunches a quarter this year, including Riverhead and North Syracuse Central. The president of the Board of Education at the Riverhead Central School District told the times that many of the board members had been confronted around town by concerned parents and questioned about the price hikes. While other districts have not experienced the same reaction from parents yet, school officials worry that if price increases have to continue into subsequent years, parents will begin to let their frustration show.
“Our parents haven’t complained, but I don’t know if they’ll be as understanding if we do it again next year, and the year after, and then the year after that,” Louise D’Angelo, director of food services for North Syracuse Central School District told the Times.
In Indianapolis, the price increases may not be felt as intently, primarily because many of the children in this school district already qualify for the federal Free and Reduced Lunch program. Steve Gudorf, food service project manager for IPS, told the Indy Channel, “For the parents at IPS, [the law] has very little impact. Roughly 85 percent of our children are on reduced or free priced meal programs, so they aren’t paying for these meals.” Other school districts in Indiana, where more parents pay full-price for meals, have been able to delay raising the price of school lunches this year, since they are currently operating in the black and can afford to absorb the price increase for now.
Free Water – Not Free?
The water issue has also become a relatively pricey one in some school districts, according to Education Week. Schools with outdated plumbing may not be able to offer safe drinking water to students. Other schools may not have drinking fountains in the vicinity of the school cafeteria to accommodate meal times. Instead, some of these schools have been forced to bring in water coolers and disposable cups to allow students access to water during meals. In San Francisco, the city’s Public Utilities Commission, the San Francisco Department of the Environment and the San Francisco Department of Public Health all became involved in the project.
While some school lunches may be growing more expensive, giving a growing child healthier nutrition is certainly priceless.