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Thursday, August 30, 2012

School Lunch Soapbox - The Price Is Not Right

How much did you pay for your lunch yesterday?  I'd like you to think about it.  Did you eat at home, grab something in a drive-thru, eat in a restaurant, bring your lunch or skip it?  Yesterday I was in Sioux Falls, SD for a meeting to plan farmer training programs across the nation.  We ate lunch in the hotel as we worked and it was $11.50 a plate.

When a student registers for school, their parents are often asked to fill out a financial statement form to determine if their family qualifies for free or reduced lunch assistance.  Per the USDA (article found here),
"Any child at a participating school may purchase a meal through the National School Lunch Program.  Children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level are eligible for free meals.  Those with incomes between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level are eligible for reduced-price meals, for which students can be charged no more than 40 cents.  (For the period July 1, 2012 through June 30, 2013, 130 percent of the poverty level is $29,965 for a family of four; 185% is $42,643.

Children from families with incomes over 185 percent of poverty pay a full price, though their meals are still subsidized to some extent.  Local school food authorities set their own prices for full-price (paid) meals, but must operate their meal services as non-profit programs."

What does this mean financially for a school lunch?  (facts and figures are again from the USDA article)
For a student who receives a free lunch, the school lunch program receives $2.86.
For a student who receives a reduced price lunch, the school lunch program receives $2.46. (The student pays 40 cents.)
For a student who pays full price for lunch, the school receives $0.27.

These prices do take into account overhead and personnel costs.  Things that are necessary like stoves, ovens, staff, dishes, etc.  When overhead costs are subtracted, many schools are left with just $1 to put a healthy lunch on a child's plate.  (source:http://visual.ly/school-lunch-food-thought)

When was the last time you had lunch for a dollar?  A small bag of chips from the vending machine costs a dollar.  And we're asking school food personnel to source and serve a healthy, nutritious, filling meal to our children for just a dollar.  Until just a few years ago, schools were required to take the lowest bid on food.  Now there are some preference points that can be given to locally sourced food.  But, with only a dollar to spend on food, the lowest priced option is the logical choice.

Why do we believe that the mantra "you get what you pay for" applies to everything except food?

Think about the last car you bought.  Did you walk onto the lot and say to the salesman, "I want the cheapest one you've got."?  Or scan the classifieds and search just for the lowest price?  What about your cellphone?  Did you buy the cheapest phone?  Or were there other considerations when you were making your decision?  I'm not saying there aren't values to be had, of course there are things that are a good value.  But by and large, there is a price to be paid for quality.  And quality in food is nutritional value.

If we want to have better school lunches for our children, it will require more money to be spent on food.  One of my dad's favorite sayings was "You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear".  We can't take the cheapest food we can find and make it good enough.  It isn't possible.

Our bodies are designed to eat until our need for nutrients is met.  The current epidemic of over-eating is directly related to the lack of nutrition in our food.  USDA Deputy Secretary Merrigan said at a talk in Bismarck last year, "The United States doesn't have a calorie production problem.  We produce enough calories.  We have a nutrient production problem."  A study published in 2004 (listed here) documented the decline of nutritional value of vegetables since 1950.  In the interest of higher production, ship-ability, and shelf life, we have lost the nutrition that food once had.  If we are what we eat, then (quite literally) we are less healthy than our grandparents.

Many parents are making different choices regarding school lunches for their children.  Some of them are packing lunches that they feel are better serving their children's nutritional needs.  Others, including a friend of mine, have pulled their children out of school and are homeschooling.

If we want better quality, more nutritious school food, the cold hard fact is that it will cost more.  And I don't have the answers right now on how that should happen.  I'd love to work together to explore solutions.

1 comment:

  1. Having just put money into my son's lunch account yesterday, I couldn't agree more. How does $394.50 cover 9 months of lunches? $10 and some odd cents a week? I hear you, Annie, and I have concerns too. Although they are advertising "locally produced fruits and vegetables will be served in the month of September" at our school. Anna

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