Meeting the challenge of good school nutrition is more important than ever. Serving healthy meals with fresh fruits and vegetables and more whole grains, as required by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, is vital not only to the well-being of our schoolchildren but to the health of our nation.
Many school meal programs struggle to afford healthy foods, wholesome preparation and nutrition education.
However, these healthy foods can be expensive. In a recent survey of AFT members about these policies, 42.9 percent of food service workers expected the year’s school meal costs to surpass revenues. With low federal reimbursement rates for school meals (42 cents for paid meals, $2.81 for reduced-price meals and $3.21 for free meals), the additional cost of healthy foods often gets passed on to the families that can least afford it and to school administrators who are already struggling to ensure their students have what they need.
For many school districts, this means using “cheese sandwich,” “alternate meal” and “unpaid balance” policies. These policies apply when a student has surpassed some threshold—five unpaid meals or a negative balance of $12, for example. At that point, the child must forgo the school’s hot, nutritious lunch and instead receive an alternate meal, one that is often less substantive, less nutritious and cold, such as a cheese or peanut butter sandwich and milk. The child may be asked to return a hot meal that has already been set on his or her tray, ready to be eaten. He or she may be given a sticker to wear or a letter to take home as a reminder to his or her parents to pay the account balance. Parents may be called, texted or emailed as well.
“Unpaid balance” and “cheese sandwich” policies pit children’s health against budgetary bottom lines.
Too often, these policies ignore what’s best for kids; on the AFT survey, 38.7 percent of respondents reported that these competing priorities come at the expense of students. For example, on the survey, 1 in 3 members reported seeing a student go hungry. In the United States, 1 out of 5 children suffers from hunger; hunger and food insecurity can lead to impaired brain functioning and poor academic achievement.2 Alternate meals and “no feed” policies can also lead to students feeling singled out and embarrassed. 1 in 4 surveyed members reported seeing a child marginalized for his or her parents’ lack of payment. Finally, “cheese sandwich” policies can mean students go hungry, skipping school meals to avoid stress and stigma.
We can create school meal programs that support healthy kids on a healthy budget.
Fitting good nutrition into a tight budget is always a challenge. When faced with a conflict between nutritional and financial priorities, many AFT members go as far as paying off a student’s balance so the child can eat a regular lunch and not go hungry. Schools and districts have options to promote children’s health, wellness and good nutrition:
1. Community Eligibility Provision: CEP is available to school and districts that offer breakfast and lunch, and where at least 40 percent of students are eligible for free- or reduced-price meals. Entering the program allows the school or district to give all students free meals.
Research has shown that enrolling in CEP improves the financial health of many school meal programs.3 Additionally, AFT research shows that in schools using CEP, children’s health is not competing with financial concerns – members report significantly less problems with their school or district “cheese sandwich” policy.
2. Farm Fresh Fundraisers: School Wellness Councils, PTAs and other school volunteers can organize Farm Fresh Fundraisers and FarmRaisers. By selling fresh produce, schools can cover the cost of unpaid school meals and integrate nutrition education. Farm Fresh distributors deliver produce, provide help with sales through coaching and offer special incentives for youth participation.
3. Healthy fundraisers and donations: Action for Healthy Kids, an organization that fights childhood obesity and undernourishment, provides resources on organizing fundraisers that reinforce positive health messages.
4. Educate parents on school meal policies: Improve school and family communication by making policies clear and readily available to all families at the beginning of the year. Educate parents through the student handbook, parent workshops, and send brochures in multiple languages. This will also help the school better identify the type of assistance needed by families, whether it is more reminders, information or financial assistance.
Food and Nutrition Service. Federal Register, Vol. 79, No. 136. Accessed Jan. 26, 2015. http://www.fns.usda.gov/sites/default/files/cn/NAPs14-15.pdf.
2No Kid Hungry. “No Kid Hungry Starts With Breakfast.” http://www.nokidhungry.org/pdfs/school-breakfast-brochure.pdf.
3Food Research and Action Center. “Community Eligibility: An Amazing New Opportunity.” Accessed Jan. 26, 2015. http://frac.org/pdf/community_eligibility_amazing_new_option_schools.pdf.