February 15, 2021
Last week we posted some information about Federal nutrition guidelines and the Smart Snack standards. School meals are governed by Federal, State, and local regulations. They are part of an economic system and food system that is not designed to provide kids with fresh food. School food service operates like a business, and often work closely with food companies who’s primary goal is to make profits. Fixing school meals a complicated challenge. To really improve the quality of what kids are served, our community needs to be ready to meet that challenge.
Today we’re going to do our best to explain the basic regulations and systems that shape school menus. The more you know, the more you can do to advocate for better food!
Federal regulations set the minimum nutrition standards and the reimbursement rates for local school districts. The Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act (or Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act) is the law that regulates school meals and all child nutrition programs across the country. The CNR sets guidelines for what food is and isn’t allowed, and also says how much money the school districts will get as a reimbursement for each meal they serve.
Back in 2010, Michelle Obama helped lead efforts to update the CNR. Lawmaker passed a new CNR that included goals for school meal nutrition standards. The new standards followed the recommendations of the National Institutes of Health and the US Dietary Guidelines, to make sure kids were being served healthy meals. The guidelines limited the amount of sugar, fat, and salt; required that students be served more fruits and vegetables; increased the amount of whole grains; and supported kids having low-fat milk/water/100% fruit juice with meals.
The legislation also directed school districts to develop local wellness policies and increased reimbursement rates for meals (for the first time in over 15 years!). Today, Federal reimbursement for free school meals is a maximum of $3.58 per lunch; and a maximum of $2.20 per breakfast.
After 2010, the USDA and researchers watched the new standards take effect, and they agreed that they were a success. Kids were eating healthier, were having more options in meals, and there was no increase in the amount of food thrown away.[i]
The CNR is typically up for reauthorization every five years. During the Trump administration, school meal programs continued to be funded, but there was no Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act. Instead, the Trump administration started to undo the progress that had been made. The US Department of Agriculture (the agency in charge of school meals) rolled back minimum nutrition standards (Healthi Kids submitted comments opposing this back in 2018 if you’d like to read more about it).
With President Biden coming into office, national advocates like Food Research Action Center, FoodCorps and others are laying the groundwork for an update of the CNR. This could include more money for school meals or new standards for nutrition and quality. Healthi Kids staff continues to take a pulse on what’s happening nationally, and will share more details about upcoming advocacy opportunities in this space.
Within New York, the NYS Department of Education administers the federal school lunch, breakfast and summer meals programs. The State adds a small amount of money to the reimbursements that schools receive for meals. For the 2018-19 school year, NYS provided an additional $0.10 for breakfast and $0.06 for lunch. Adding the NYS reimbursement to the Federal reimbursement, Rochester City School District has a maximum budget of “$3.64 per school lunch meal served” and “$2.26 per breakfast served”.
The reimbursement covers everything- NOT just the food served to kids. The reimbursement money is spent on administrative salaries and benefits, kitchen and lunchroom staff, equipment/supplies, and the cost of the food itself. The federal government does not dictate what the percentage of reimbursement must go to which category. Some districts spend more than 50% of their money on food, while others might spend less than 20% on the food they serve to kids.
The rate does not automatically change every year, but the costs of food, health benefits, and everything else go up and up. Because both the State and Federal government don’t keep up with inflation, school districts are able to do less and less with the money.
Farm-to-School programs connect local products to school cafeterias. They often mean apples or milk from local farms, but school gardens can also be included in Farm-to-School. These innovative supply chains often bring fresher, high-quality and nutritious ingredients to school meals. New York State is doing a lot to support Farm-to-School, including grants to help school districts figure out how to grow their programs.
There are also financial incentives for districts. Currently, school districts that source 30% of their lunch food from NYS producers are eligible for an extra $0.25 reimbursement from the State. When you think about how little money schools get per meal, an extra $0.25 can make a difference. According to American Farmland Trust, almost 1 in 3 NYS school districts surveyed were already meeting that goal.[ii] Rochester City School District is not among them.
We’ve seen amazing work being pushed forward with Farm-to-School in districts across the country. For example - in Detroit and Baltimore, the school districts have established their own farms! School farms and gardens across the country provide opportunities for kids to learn how fresh food is grown. Teachers use them as learning spaces to teach about math, science, and other subjects. And kids are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables that they have seen grown and prepared.
Healthi Kids wants our school district to take advantage of additional funding and reimbursement rates, so that they can serve more fresh fruits and vegetables to kids. That’s why we participate in the statewide New York Grown Food for New York Kids Coalition.
The Rochester City School District serves approximately 20,000 school lunches; and 17,0000 breakfasts daily. The RCSD Food Services Department operates a central kitchen model. The meals are created at one site, and then distributed to school buildings. A number of school buildings have hybrid kitchens that allow for some food preparation; and some have salad bars that allow kids to create their own salads – but the bulk of the work is done at the central kitchen. In our lunch observations, kids told us that meals are better in schools with hybrid kitchens - as meals can be prepared closer to “scratch cooking” or “how they have their meals at home”.
We shared last week that school districts are allowed to create nutrition standards that exceed those outlined by the federal government. RCSD follows the minimum standards. Our district’s wellness policy outlines a few key items around this:
- 5405.30: Nutrition standards for school meals: highlights all of the specific nutrition standards for school meals
- 5405.40: Guidelines for sale and food items outside of school meals: highlights all of the standards around what's allowable outside of the school meal program
So what can I do to improve school meals today?
For over a decade, Healthi Kids has been working alongside families and youth to advocate for better school meals. We have pushed for policies that you see in our local wellness policy, piloted ideas like salad bars and flavor shakers, ensured kids have access to water, and more. In 2018, we also worked with the Mayor’s Youth Advisory Council Youth Voice One Vision to conduct a survey of teens, asking them, “What would make school meals better?”. You can read their final scorecard on school meals here.
We know there’s much more that needs to be done to improve meals for our kids. It’s going to take us all targeting our Federal, State, and local systems to make sure action happens. Change isn’t coming overnight, especially with so many resources being focused on COVID-19 relief. But we can continue to work on changing the systems and policies that stand in the way of healthy, nutritious, and delicious school meals. Here’s some steps that you can be doing right now:
1. Talk about school meals with your federal elected officials: The Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act should have been updated in 2015 or 2016. It never was. With a new administration and Congress, there is hope that the law will be updated to strengthen nutrition standards and help districts serve better meals. Start educating your elected officials about why the CNR is so important to school meals. Not sure who your federal representatives are? Click here.
2. Join statewide advocacy efforts: Visit Hunger Solutions New York and New York Grown Food for New York Kids to learn more about what’s happening with statewide advocacy for healthy, high-quality school meals. Sign up for their newsletters and receive up-to-date information on how you can make your voice heard in Albany.
3. Make sure the current guidelines are being followed in your school! Did you see our blog post last week about Smart Snacks? Many folks don’t understand how complicated the school food issue can be. Be a champion in your school by sharing out the Smart Snack standards, and using the RCSD Wellness Policy to advocate for your kids.
[i] USDA (2014). Fact Sheet: Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act School Meals Implementation. https://www.usda.gov/media/press-releases/2014/05/20/fact-sheet-healthy-hunger-free-kids-act-school-meals-implementation
[ii] NY Food for NY Kids (2021). New York State Farm to Institution.