School meals are designed to be both nutritious for students and easy on their families' pocketbooks. Yet while some school lunches might get an "A" on providing essential nutrients, they appear to be receiving a flunking grade for affordability.
The issue of school meal prices came to the forefront last week when a school kitchen manager in a Denver suburb said she lost her job after giving lunches to students who didn't have the money to pay. While the school district later said the employee was let go for other reasons, the incident raised questions about how children from families earning at least $31,000 per year -- the threshold for a family of four to receive free lunches -- could fail to afford the seemingly modest cost of school breakfasts and lunches. Reduced-price lunches are available for families earning 185 percent above the poverty rate, or about $44,000 for a family of four.
At the heart of the issue is a tough economic squeeze for families considered the "working poor," or those who are scraping by just above the poverty threshold. The average price of an elementary school lunch has surged 52 percent in just 11 years, according to a study from the Food Research and Action Center, a nonprofit that focuses on anti-hunger initiatives. During the same period, the median income of U.S. households has declined 5.4 percent.
"For families with income over 185 percent of the poverty level, that's sometimes a tough lift, if kids are eating two meals at school," Jim Weill, the president of the Food Research and Action Center, told CBS MoneyWatch. "As schools have gotten more squeezed, they are trying to be more aggressive about cost control and trying to get more income from the cafeteria."
The other cause of higher school meal costs is the Paid Lunch Equity provision, which was enacted by Congress as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, Weill noted. The provision requires school districts to increase the prices of "paid lunches," or those meals purchased by children who don't qualify for free or reduced-price meals, after the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that full-price meals were sold for 13 percent less than the cost to produce the meal.
While the cost of school meals had been rising for years, that provision was a key driver in the escalating costs of school breakfasts and lunches. Elementary school lunches have seen the sharpest increase in prices (52 percent), followed by middle school and high school lunches, at 47 percent and 46 percent, respectively, according to data from the Food Research and Action Center. The average price of an elementary school lunch was $2.18 per day in the 2013-2014 school year, while middle-school and high-school lunches cost an average of $2.37 and $2.42, respectively.
A family with two children in elementary school and an annual income of $45,000 would be required to pay $784 for lunches during the typical 180-day school year. Add in breakfast, and fees for school meals can easily top $1,200 annually. For families struggling in cities with high costs of living, such as San Francisco and New York, that additional $1,200 can be hard to come by, Weill noted.
"That's a lot of money when salaries for the bottom half of the population have been declining or flat, while housing and medical costs have been going up," he noted.
In the recent Colorado case, Della Curry said she gave school lunches to children who didn't have the money to pay for a regular lunch. In her school system, kids who failed to qualify for free or reduced lunch were given one slice of cheese on a hamburger bun and a small milk.
Although providing a child with a cheese sandwich might seem like a kindness rather than letting them go hungry, the strategy ends up stigmatizing the children of the working poor, who, Weill notes, aren't responsible for whether their parents can afford school lunches. In a recent case in Maryland, one mother said her children ended up humiliated after she fell behind by $12 and her children's school gave them cheese sandwiches rather than the regular hot entree.
"It sets them up for ridicule and bullying," the mother told CBS affiliate WUSA.
While the free and reduced-price lunch program is designed to provide nourishment to the children of low-income families so that they can focus on learning, there are pitfalls that undermine its effectiveness. Parents who are English-language learners may struggle to fill out the paperwork, for instance.
School districts also verify the incomes of a small pool of families to make sure they are eligible, but about one-third of families picked for verification failed to respond, prompting their kids to be cut off from the program, even if they were actually eligible, said Zoë Neuberger, a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in testimony last month before the House Education and Workforce subcommittee.
The result? Some children who should be eligible for financial assistance end up without meals because of the barriers to qualification, while students from families just above the income threshold sometimes go without food or are given options such as cheese sandwiches if their parents fall behind in payment.
School meals provide far more than nutrition to children, said Weill.
"The one thing we know about school lunch and school breakfast is it's not just about stopping hunger. They are educational investments," he said. "Kids don't learn well if they haven't had food."
The solution, Weill noted, would be to provide free meals to every student, regardless of income. Doing so would eliminate the stigma of falling short on funds and remove the obstacle of paperwork, which some families may struggle with. While that may seem like a stretch in today's cost-cutting environment, some school districts are moving toward providing free meals to all students.
Earlier this month, Baltimore began offering free breakfast and lunch to all students, regardless of income, which was made possible by Maryland's Hunger Free Schools Act of 2015. Maryland delegate Keith Haynes, who sponsored the legislation, said that the law would eliminate a stigma for kids whose families couldn't pay for lunch, as well as for homeless families who may fall through the cracks.
"We know that nutritious, balanced meals has a direct correlation to positive outcomes for our students," Haynes said, according to the Baltimore Sun. "And we know not everyone has access to that."