The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

The Cost of School Nutrition

The Cost of School Nutrition

In the News

August 30, 2009

The majority of school foodservice directors say that funding and the cost of food and food preparation are the most pressing issues facing cafeteria programs across the nation this fall, according to a recent report from the School Nutrition Association (SNA). The report, based on an analysis of 1,207 survey responses from districts in 49 states (all except Hawaii), found that 60% of districts increased their school lunch prices this year to keep up with costs. Only one-third of districts increased lunch prices in 2007.

“The economy is having a real effect on our students. The average cost to prepare a school meal is $2.92, and the average revenue is $2.43 – quite a significant difference – so we are working with Congress to try and get increased support for school meals,” says Dora Rivas, SNA President. “However, new initiatives in the food industry are helping us improve school meals within the context of the funding we receive.” 

As the price of the school lunch continues to go up – for example, the average price of a full-paid lunch today is $1.87 for elementary school students versus $1.54 in 2005 and $1.66 in 2007 – the magnitude of the increases has risen as well. The median increase for breakfast and lunch today is $0.25 as compared with an increase of $0.10 in 2005 and $0.15 in 2007. Rates for paid meals have either decreased across every grade level or stayed the same. Student participation in free or reduced price meal programs has gone up across all grade levels.

But despite the difficult economy, schools are doing their best to provide their students with quality, nutritious foods. Close to 100% of schools offer fresh fruit and vegetables in their cafeterias, 96% offer whole grains, 91% offer salads and 88% offer yogurt in at least one school in their district. Fat-free or low-fat milk is offered in 99% of schools and is the most popular beverage choice among students; 100% juice runs a close second at 97.6%.

“In addition to the minimum standards set forth by the USDA, we have very conscientious directors across the country trying to go beyond the minimum requirements. Even though it’s more expensive for the school to do so, most of our schools are providing fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains. We want to expose students to the concept of eating these more nutrient rich foods,” says Rivas.

Efforts to provide foods for students with special diets are succeeding too. Vegetarians can purchase meals in 64% of schools (a gain of 12.4% since 2007); vegans and those on a gluten-free diet can do so in 20.5% of schools. Lactose-free milk and soy or rice milk are provided in 16.6% and 14% of schools, respectively. 

“Students and parents have come to us and requested more vegetarian options and other options for students with special diets. Here in Dallas, where I am based, we are offering a vegetarian option from elementary school through high school. And we are making a limited number of items from scratch, like special salads and vegetarian items,” says Rivas.

The overall prevalence of ethnic food offerings continues to grow, with percentages increasing in nearly every category since 2005. Mexican food is the most popular ethnic food, offered by 99% of the districts; Asian food is offered by 80.5% of districts.

Meanwhile, the availability of organics has slightly decreased, from 5 to 4.1%, likely due to cost concerns. Focus has instead shifted to local foods. Thirty-seven percent of cafeterias now offer locally grown foods, as compared to 32% in 2007. About one-third of the districts currently purchase food items from local growers and interest in doing so is high. Twenty-two percent of schools not currently doing so say that would consider this option.

“We do have some new programs that we have been able to take advantage of, and our local programs that source food from farm to school are popular,” says Rivas. “When you have a limited amount of resources, you have to be more selective as to where your money goes.”

Since many school districts are facing financial challenges, schools are seeking out alternate ways to raise funds, with 75% offering catering within schools and 27% offering catering outside of schools. Thirty-three percent provide vending services, 4.4% have a school store and 4.2% have a weekend backpack program. Of all the programs offered, lunch is still the most prevalent, provided by 100% of schools, and breakfast (96.7%) runs a close second. More than half of schools provide after school snacks. 

Rivas says that offering healthy choices is a top priority and something that parents can reinforce at home, even during these tough times. She suggests that consumers watch for sales on fresh items like fruits and vegetables, and encourage their children to participate during meal preparation so that they can learn to prepare healthy meals for themselves. She also says parents should be more selective in choosing more nutrient rich foods when at the retail store.

“Retailers, for their part, can help by providing the marketing materials to teach parents how to read the labels and point out fresh items to encourage healthier choices,” adds Rivas.