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No Such Thing As a Free Lunch – But Now We Know How Much It Costs

November 11, 2008 - 9:00am

Here at the Federal Education Budget Project, which houses Ed Money Watch, we make federal education funding information more transparent and accessible to the public, researchers, and policymakers.   To this end, we are proud to release state and school district level data on federal funding for school nutrition programs. As the second largest federal funding source for public schools after Title I at over $13 billion in 2008, tracking these programs is particularly important now as school districts across the country are struggling due to unstable budgets and increased food prices.

Federal school nutrition programs consist of two main funding streams, both out of the Department of Agriculture (USDA).  The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) supports student nutrition in over 101,000 schools and residential facilities. It provides free and reduced priced meals to low-income children before, during, and after school, and over the summer. In fiscal year 2008, federal school nutrition programs subsidized more than five billion meals served to over 31 million students.

In addition to the NSLP, the federal government also supports a school commodities food program.  The commodities program distributes whole foods like fruits and vegetables to more than 94,000 public and private nonprofit schools that provide meals to students.  The commodities program benefits American farmers by distributing surplus foods in return for cash payments.

Our data displays the amount of federal reimbursement each state and district received for meals and commodities separately and for all nutrition programs combined in fiscal years 2006 and 2007.   The federal reimbursement amount is based on the number of free, reduced price, and paid meals served each year multiplied by the federal reimbursement rate for that meal type.

This data couldn't come at a better time: School nutrition programs have been making news recently. 

Most notably, the USDA recently shut down Philadelphia's universal feeding program which provided free meals to all students in participating schools.  This program, a pilot started in 1991 to examine innovative ways to enroll students in free or reduced priced meals, replaced traditional paper enrollment forms with a survey that approximated the number of eligible students in the district.  Citing unreliable tracking problems, the USDA discontinued the program leaving Philadelphia to revamp a paper application system they haven't used in nearly 20 years.

Philadelphia is just one example of districts recently rocked by school meals.  Across the country, schools have been losing money on every meal served and rising food prices have brought districts into serious budget deficits, sometimes as high as $1 million.  These districts are forced to make difficult decisions - increase the cost of meals students shoulder, cut back on cafeteria staff, or rely on providers with questionable practices who offer lower priced goods.  As state budgets continue to falter and families struggle with finances, school nutrition programs are likely to be affected.

There is hope.  Baltimore City Public Schools recently hired a new school food chief who pledges to bring locally grown foods into school meals to both lower cost and increase nutrition.  Other districts are also dedicating funds to improving the quality of food.  But the battle over school lunch budgets is destined to be a long one for most districts.

We hope this new data sheds some much needed light on the cost of school nutrition programs.  State and district data can be accessed here.  Keep an eye out for future analysis of the data and recommendations for how school nutrition programs can be better leveraged to help low-income children.