Between the end of pandemic-related school aid and the sharp increase in food costs, schools and families are getting squeezed in yet another area: school meals.
This school year, the median cost for breakfast is $1.73 at an elementary school, $1.75 at a middle school and $1.80 at a high school, according to the School Nutrition Association. For lunch, it is $2.75 for an elementary school and $3 for a middle or high school, up from pre-pandemic levels. For a family with three school-aged kids, the prices quickly add up – to more than $67 a week.
And that's for meals that were free for the last few years, paid for via federal waivers that made breakfast and lunch free to all students regardless of family income. Those waivers ended at the end of the last school year and the costs of school meals in most states reverted back to prices set by individual districts, unless students qualified for free or reduced-priced meals based on family income. Before the pandemic, nearly 22 million students were served free or reduced-price lunches a day, according to federal data.
The latest data from the Consumer Price Index shows a dramatic annual increase in the cost of food at elementary and secondary school: 305% for families from a year ago for what are often the most healthy meals children have, a recent study found. Increased food costs are helping drive the increases. The cost of eggs is up nearly 60% from a year ago; bread and lunch meats are both up more than 15%; milk and cheese, up more than 12%.
In its latest survey, released in January, the School Nutrition Association found 60.5% of school meal program directors said they had increased prices for meals for the current school year.
Association President Lori Adkins warned school meal programs are "at a tipping point as rising costs, persistent supply chain issues and labor shortages jeopardize their long-term sustainability."
Of the 1,230 school meal program directors nationwide who participated, the survey found 99.8% said increased costs was the top challenge – and 88.5% said those costs are a significant challenge.
"It's not only inflation that is increasing the cost of preparing meals, it's also supply chain disruptions and labor shortages," said Diane Pratt-Heavner from the School Nutrition Association.
At the Prince William County Public Schools, Virginia's second-largest school district, they have seen the all three challenges at play over the past few years coming through the pandemic. During the first year of the pandemic, when meals were free, it served 22 million meals. The district served about 15 million meals a year before the pandemic.
"In a program where our financials are very tight as it is, it's getting even tighter, and more challenging quite frankly, to ensure quality meals are being served," said program director Adam Russo.
It's not clear just how much the drop in participation is from families sending students with a packed lunch or because meals are no longer free.
"We dropped off year over year closer to 10% now, beginning of year closer to 20%, because there was that initial sticker shock," said Russo. "I think our families are starting to come back to us. I think some of the people who thought 'Oh my gosh, I can't believe the price went up,' I think they slowly adjusted back and said 'Man, that was still a good deal.'"
Meal programs are supposed to be covered through a mix of cafeteria sales and federal reimbursements. For the current school year, Congress raised the reimbursement rate by 40 cents per lunch and 15 cents per breakfast. But among respondents surveyed, a majority signaled the higher rates fail to cover the cost of producing lunch and breakfast.
This year, schools receive less than $4.45 per lunch – which must cover a meal including a fruit, vegetable, protein, grain and milk as well as costs for tray, utensils, labor, equipment, utilities and more. More than 99% are concerned about adequate reimbursements when the additional funds expire in July. If not continued, increased costs could cut into other parts of district budgets.
Prince William County did not raise prices for families, but has tried to limit its own costs, including changing the menu so the most expensive items appear less frequently on the lunch schedule. Supply chain challenges have improved this year, but at one point entire trucks just didn't show up. Addressing those challenges meant sourcing more products locally and tightening menus.
More than 90% of survey respondents reported shortages and discontinued menu items, even as programs have to meet nutrition standards — resulting in higher costs. At the same time, 89% reported difficulty getting the menu items necessary to meet current standards. Nearly 93% of school nutrition programs also reported staff shortages.
Just halfway through the school year, as paying for school meals kicked back in for families, another pre-pandemic issue is back in play:. According to the SNA survey, school meal debt has already topped more than $19 million this year. For districts that do not offer free meals, the median debt was $6,000 per district so far.
And families whose children are in their first three years of schooling have never had to apply for programs that can help them afford meals.
"Going back to applications was a big change for everybody," said Zoe Neuberger, policy analyst with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "There isn't data on this yet, but our concern would be that some low-income families wouldn't know about that process or be able to do it successfully."
Research shows that for low-income kids, Neuberger said, having school meals and enough to eat is associated not just with better health, but also better development, better school attendance, fewer behavioral issues and better academic performance.
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