School meal rules to triple costs next fiscal year

The USDA estimates new meal standards will force districts and states to absorb $1.22 billion in costs in fiscal year 2015.

WASHINGTON, D.C.—The price tag for school meals is getting bigger—much bigger.

According to the USDA, new school meal standards will force school districts and states to absorb $1.22 billion in new food, labor and administrative costs in fiscal year 2015. That’s nearly three times the cost in fiscal year 2014.

The department says that “increases in food and labor costs are equivalent to about 10 cents for each reimbursable school lunch and 27 cents for each reimbursable breakfast in FY 2015.” Districts currently receive six additional cents for each reimbursable lunch and no additional funds for breakfast.

That has many in the industry calling for help, including the 55,000-member School Nutrition Association (SNA). "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, in a press release.  "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. 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.”

SNA is asking for the following flexibilities:

  • Maintain the 2012 requirement that half of grains offered be whole grain rich, instead of requiring that all grains be whole grain rich.
  • Maintain Target 1 sodium levels, and suspend further reductions until scientific research supports them.
  • To avoid food waste, offer but do not require students to take a fruit or vegetable.
  • Allow healthy items permitted on the meal line to be sold a la carte as well.

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