Updates to School Nutrition Standards will raise costs, Congressional Research Service report shows

The report says that the changes will cost school nutrition programs an estimated additional 3 cents per meal on average.
School meals could cost an estimated 3 cents more on average to make due to the recent updates to the School Nutrition Standards. | Photo: Shutterstock

School meals are about to get more expensive to produce, a report by the Congressional Research Service shows.

The increase in estimated costs is due to the updated changes to the School Nutrition Standards. It’s been just under two months since the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) published its final rule on the changes which include things like incorporating added sugar restrictions for the first time to school meals and further reducing the amount of sodium in meals.

The CRS report shows that the USDA estimates that the changes will cost school nutrition programs an additional 3 cents per meal on average which results in a nationwide total of an estimated $206 million annually.

The biggest contributor to the increased costs is the new added sugar restrictions which will cost school districts an estimated $110 million annually.

According to the updated standards, sugar restrictions for school meals will be phased in over a period of years. The first phase would begin during the 2025-26 school year and would put product-based added sugar restrictions on grain-based desserts, breakfast cereals, yogurts and flavored milk. Phase two would begin during the fall of 2027 and would limit added sugars to an average of less than 10% of calories per meal for both breakfasts and lunches. This weekly limit would be in addition to the limits included in phase one.

Updates to the amount of sodium allowed in school meals will also contribute to the cost increase. Starting July 2027, schools will have to further reduce sodium in school lunches by approximately 15% and will have to further reduce sodium in school breakfast by approximately 10%. The CMS report shows that these changes will cost an estimated $86 million annually.

In addition, the changes will also cost an estimated average of $16 million in administrative costs each year.

The report notes that there is no federal funding being used to implement these changes. In recent years, school nutrition operators have pushed for increasing the amount of federal reimbursement school nutrition programs receive through each meal served through the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program.

As part of its 2024 Position Paper, for example, the School Nutrition Association (SNA) has called on Congress to raise federal meal reimbursements by 40 cents per lunch and by 15 cents per breakfast. The low rates were also a main topic at the SNA’s Legislative Action Conference in March.

In a survey released by the SNA earlier this year, which included responses from 1,343 school meal program directors from across thecountry, almost all (99.3%) respondents said that increasing costs are a challenge and just 17% of respondents reported that the current reimbursement rate is sufficient to cover the cost of preparing a lunch. In addition, 91.6% of respondents were concerned about the financial sustainability of their program in the next three years.

Last year, a federal bill that would raise the reimbursement rates by 45 cents for every lunch served and 28 cents for every breakfast served, with a yearly adjustment, was introduced by U.S. Representative James P. McGovern. The bill never made it out of the House.



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