Every day, thousands of students across southeast Michigan walk down to the school cafeteria and eat breakfast, lunch and sometimes even dinner. Some eat food from home, but many go through the cafeteria line and partake in the school meals program. Critics often view school meals as unhealthy and food service directors are criticized for serving pizza too often. It is difficult to understand why school meals look the way they do until you learn how school meals programs are funded and governed.
The School Nutrition Association estimates it costs $3.10 on average to produce a school meal, yet current reimbursement rates fall nearly 40 cents per serving below that. In addition, the school meals program is expected to be self sufficient and operate in the black. It does not receive money from the school’s general fund; in fact, it often contributes to general fund expenses in the form of custodian fees, electric and waste removal charges, lunchtime aides, etc. Yet despite all these factors, school food service directors across the region are working with local farmers and developing farm to school programs at their schools!
In understanding how the school meals program is funded, we can see that real change needs to occur in order to support the type of “healthy” meals we all desire.
The School Breakfast Program and National School Lunch Program are permanently funded by the federal government, however, The Child Nutrition Act, which helps fund programs such as the Summer Food Service Program and Child and Adult Care Food Program, among others, must be renewed every five years. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Act known as the Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) was signed into law on December 13, 2010.
With the passing of CNR, school lunch programs in K-12 schools will change. Nutrition standards are changing and students will see a brighter array of fruits and vegetables incorporated into the school lunch. There will also be support for school wellness policies and funding available for farm to school programs.
All of these changes are great and will help improve the health and well being of our students. Let your school food service director know you understand the challenges they face and that you support their efforts to incorporate fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables into the school meal program. They’ll appreciate your encouragement and support!