7 Reasons Why Universal
Public Policy & Legislation
The Benefits Reach Students, Families, and American Businesses.
The Business Case for Equitably- Funded (Universal) School Meals First, some background for anyone who thinks our programs are already locally funded. School nutrition programs are businesses. If you think of a school district as a small city, we’re your favorite franchise “restaurant” at every major intersection (and it’s our pleasure). The same school nutrition team manages all “restaurants” operating in a single district’s buildings. The money we make through purchased meals and a la carte items (snacks) pays for our food, supplies, equipment, and labor costs. So no, taxpayers don’t fund our programs — at least not directly. State taxes fund the rest of the district, but (like a restaurant) we get our revenue from the money we earn. Traditionally, our revenue comes from two sources: what families pay for meals and federal meal reimbursements. The amounts are determined by income guidelines that classify students into three categories: Free, Reduced, and Paid. These classifications determine the amount that families pay for meals and the amount we are reimbursed for those meals. All meals are subsidized, including Paid. Free and Reduced meals give us the highest revenue because Paid meals are reimbursed at a substantially lower rate ($.42 vs $3.73 per lunch).
School Meals are Worth the Investment
1. Families Want School Lunches According to the most recent federal data , the demand for Free or Reduced meals is growing: • In 2019, schools served 74.1% of lunch meals at Free or Reduced rates. • In 2020, that number increased to 76.9%. In 2021, 90% of meals were served at Free rates. Families are increasingly eager to participate in school meal programs because school meals do a critical but difficult task: They consistently provide ALL children with exceptional, nutritious, hot food. 2. Equitably-Funded School Meals Benefit Families at ALL Income Levels If passed, the Build Back Better Act would expand eligibility for free meals through CEP (Community Eligibility Provision). That’s not nearly enough to solve the problems school nutrition programs face. The CEP targets school districts at the lowest socioeconomic level. It doesn’t impact districts with a higher number of Paid-eligible students (students in households with incomes too high for Free or Reduced rates).
Enter a pandemic. The USDA (our regulatory agency) created emergency waivers to offset the disruptions nutrition programs faced because of COVID closures and lockdowns. One of these waivers allows districts to offer meals at Free rates/reimbursements to ALL students. The waiver came at a critical time for families impacted by COVID, and I’m grateful. It also came at a critical time for school nutrition programs because it gave us what we’ve always needed to be successful: equitably funded meals. The socioeconomic status of our students and school district no longer mattered. Because of the temporary waiver, we don’t have to structure sales offerings based on our students’ household incomes to make ends meet. Whether we like it or not, we must put effort into where we are funded. When meals are funded fairly and equitably, meals are our focus, not a la carte snacks and beverages. Our reality is that this waiver is currently set to expire in June 2022. I’m happy to see a congressional push for increased access to school meals. But the Build Back Better Act isn’t enough and does not address the problem. We need legislation that makes equitably-funded meals permanent. Here’s why.
BY LINDSEY HILL, RD, SNS MENULOGIC K12, FOUNDER, CHIEF PRODUCT OFFICER DIRECTOR OF NUTRITION SERVICES, SOUTH MADISON COMM. SCHOOLS
Universal school meals would mean a federal tax-funded program that makes breakfast and lunch available to all students regardless of their income. Right now, universal school meals are temporary. State and federal legislators are discussing bills that would implement these programs. With that in mind, let’s play a game of true or false: Universal school meals only help low-income families? I’m a school nutrition director, a Registered Dietitian, and founder of MenuLogic K12 (a business intelligence software for school nutrition programs), so I’m well acquainted with the answer. Answer: FALSE – Universal school meals absolutely assist low- income families. But they also
benefit middle and upper-income families, school districts, and entire communities. In fact, one 2021 study identified the following benefits of universal school meals: • They have a protective effect on student BMI • They improve financial outcomes for school districts • They’re associated with increased household incomes The taxes you pay supporting a universal school meal program is money well-spent — they go directly to children, families, and domestic businesses. In other words, every tax dollar spent on universal school meals is a direct investment in your community.
I’m going to walk you through these 7 reasons why the benefits of a universal school nutrition program ripple from individual students to families and entire communities: 1. Gives families (and voters) what they want 2 . Benefits families at ALL income levels 3. Helps children focus on school, not hunger (or stigma) 4. Meets kids’ nutritional needs 5. Creates high-quality jobs 6. Lets school nutrition staff be community helpers (not debt collectors) 7. Is critical for the survival of school nutrition programs
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