School districts will take on lunch costs that are expected to triple in fiscal year 2015, leading to financial strain as fewer students participate in the program, the School Nutrition Association said Tuesday.
"School nutrition professionals have led the way in promoting improved diets for students and are committed to serving healthy meals," said SNA CEO Patricia Montague. "Despite all of these efforts, fewer students are eating school meals, and the escalating costs of meeting overly prescriptive regulations are putting school meal programs in financial jeopardy."
The group, which represents 55,000 school nutrition professionals in the U.S., said the increase is based on USDA estimates that "will force local school districts and states to absorb $1.22 billion in new food, labor and administrative costs in Fiscal Year 2015 alone, up from $362 million in additional costs in FY 2014."
SNA said districts are further strained as fewer students are participating in the program since the changes went into effect. More than one million fewer students choose school lunch each day, which cuts revenue for schools, the group notes.
USDA, however, dismisses claims that school lunch revenue is falling. In June, the agency completed an analysis finding that in the first year of the new meals, schools saw a net nationwide increase in revenue from school lunches of approximately $200 million, including annual reimbursement rate adjustments.
USDA also notes that 0.15% of schools nationwide, mostly child care institutions and small schools, the agency says, have reported dropping out of USDA programs in response to the new requirements. Additionally, USDA notes that 70% of elementary schools reported that students liked the new lunches, according to a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation survey.
While USDA has already approved a meat and grain and calorie cap flexibility for school districts, SNA has requested more tweaking on cost and waste.
"USDA or Congress must act to provide greater flexibility under the rules before school meal programs become a financial liability for the school districts they serve," Montague said.
Flexibilities can be added to curb food waste, manage costs and encourage more students to eat school lunch, the group says. Those include: Maintaining the 2012 requirement that half of grains offered be whole grain rich, instead of requiring that all grains be whole grain rich; maintaining Target 1 sodium levels; offering (but not requiring students to take) vegetables and fruits; and allowing healthy items permitted on the meal line to be sold a la carte.
The flexibilities are similar to those offered by a group of lawmakers earlier this year who also suggested that the changes be made due to lower participation in schools and higher costs.
This story has been updated to include USDA data on school participation.
News source: SNA/USDA