In 2010, school cafeterias served over five billion lunches in 2010, with more than half being supplied free or at a reduced cost, according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service. Alarmingly, this means that one out of every two school-age children in the United States is at or below what the USDA considers poverty level. Despite these statistics, new laws and surfacing information about the free and reduced school lunch program are starting to raise eyebrows, and plenty of questions.
KAAL-TV explains how the “Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act”, passed by President Obama, brought about a myriad of changes when it was signed into law. As well as regulating the nutritional content of provided meals, the law also gave the USDA power to control the price of school lunches nationwide.
While districts could previously set their own meal prices based on their economic demographics, the USDA now sets the national standard. Currently, schools are reimbursed by the USDA for every free and reduced lunch they serve; the USDA, however, sets the price for what the government will pay in reimbursement costs. With a current average increase of $.05 every year, one Texas school anticipates the USDA’s reimbursement price will be almost $3.00 per free lunch in the next few years.
According to the Island Packet, schools must match their non-reduced lunch prices to as close to the USDA standard as possible. As for why, the USDA wants to ensure that schools are charging enough to cover the production costs for the free and reduced meals. Essentially, the students who pay full price will be paying more to cover the costs of the handouts.
For many districts, this is creating a financial hardship for residents. One Minnesota district reports that they will have to increase their school lunch price from $1.93 to $2.51, and will be doing so with gradual price adjustments. Yet, they worry for the parents on tight budgets that watch every penny they spend but do not qualify for the reduced lunches.
However, since the average price of each lunch is increasing, this will also mean that more families will qualify for aid. Essentially, raising the price of a non-reduced school lunch will mean more students will qualify for free and reduced lunches. Eventually, the higher the costs go, the number of students on the discounted lunch program will heavily outweigh the number of students not on it.
But is this the goal of the free and reduced school lunch program, to get as many families dependent on it as they can? To have the government completely responsible for feeding our nation’s children is a downright scary and unnerving concept; yet this is the direction our nation is taking.
And what will the cap be on the price of school lunches; is there a lunch-cost ceiling? How is the price determined? And why is the cost so much more than a meal I could provide myself? I would refuse to purchase a school lunches for my children, based on the knowledge that I would not be paying for the actual meal and its cost, but an inflated rate to meet a governmental guideline. Much less the fact that I could pack my child a homemade lunch for pennies on the dollar.
When it comes to the free and reduced school lunch program, it is understandable that there is a need for assistance for disadvantaged families. However, with these recent laws and regulations, its looking like this program has a lot more behind it than just sandwiches, apples and milk. I can’t yet put my finger on it, but there are plenty of politics at play in the school cafeteria.