Fresh Bites Spring Edition 2022

typical lunch line. That leaves 5-10 seconds per transaction. When a student’s account is unpaid, the reason doesn’t change the outcome: a child staring up at a cashier with an empty belly and no means to fill it. How can that embarrassed student and guilty cashier handle this situation appropriately within such tight time constraints? What other restaurant in the country can serve food that quickly AND gently explain to hungry six-year-olds that they still need to pay for their food? A walk in the shoes of a student juggling hunger, anxiety, and school work would help us understand certain behavioral issues that come up in the classroom. It’s tough to practice long division when you’re worried you won’t have enough money in your account to eat lunch. Can you imagine the impact on our kids’ education when they no longer worry about hunger and payment logistics? Don’t we prefer parents spend their time engaging with the school on education, not money collection? Isn’t it better for families to think about escaping poverty instead of proving to the district and government that they’re poor enough to deserve affordable school meals? 4. Equitably-Funded School Meals Meet Kids’ Nutritional Needs The alternative to school lunch is a packed lunch. That’s simple enough, right? If you have kids in school, you know “simple” isn’t the right word. Caregivers need to choose affordable, convenient foods that fit in a lunchbox and won’t spoil quickly. Enter $1 Lunchables that contain zero whole grains, milk, fruits, or vegetables but include a fun-size candy bar! I believe that nutrition is a crucial component of children’s education at school. When our programs are adequately funded, we get to do what we’ve always wanted: Focus on the quality of food. Believe it or not, keeping track of which families are paying for school meals is not our favorite part of the job. The dream is to make nutrient- dense meals available to all students so they can see what a balanced meal looks like while satisfying their hunger and fueling their hardworking brains. What’s standing in the way of us living out that dream? Financial barriers to our programs. Remember, the money we need to buy food and hire personnel comes from students’ meals and snacks. This forces some of us to spend time where the bulk of our profits come from: cheap a la carte options, not the meals kids benefit from most (but can’t afford). Say the cost per lunch is $3.62 ($1.61 food & supply, $1.42 labor, $.59 overhead), and a nutrition director wants to reinvest 3% ($.11) of the revenue back into the program: • Free and Reduced lunches return a full reimbursement of $3.73 per meal. • Paid lunches (priced at, for example, $2.75 for affordability) return only $3.17. To compensate for that loss, nutrition programs supplement with a la carte options that have higher profit margins. If the funding followed a meal, we wouldn’t have to rely on a la 7 Reasons Why Universal School Meals are Worth the Investment

Public Policy & Legislation


But here’s the thing: Most Paid-eligible students aren’t the uber-wealthy. They’re middle- class families selling trash bags and wrapping paper to fundraise for their kids’ extracurriculars. It’s a huge mistake to think those families don’t want (or won’t benefit from) equitably-funded meals, and I’ve seen numbers proving that. Meal participation grew by 20% and more in many districts after COVID, and those increases came from Paid-eligible students. In other words, families that made too much to qualify for Free or Reduced rates were finally able to participate in their school’s meal program when the emergency waiver kicked in. That tells me that cost, not preference, kept them out of our programs. When the waiver expires, we have to start charging those parents again. To serve Free and Reduced-eligible students, we need the revenue from Paid-eligible students. But increases in food, labor, and supply costs will force us to charge rates that price us out of the market. Will Paid families be able to afford or choose to put our programs back into their household budgets? 3. Equitably Funded Meals Help Children Focus on School (Not Hunger or Stigma) Every child deserves to wake up knowing they’re going to eat that day, but that’s not our reality. Some caregivers forget to pay, some can’t pay, and some choose not to pay for their student’s meals. Our cashiers serve hundreds of students in less than 7 minutes in a

carte items to have viable programs. Temporary universal meals have allowed us to use our resources for better quality food and learning how to retain and attract skilled labor necessary to produce better quality food. But without permanent commitment to that funding, we hesitate to make the long-term changes our programs need. Equitably funded meals allow us to afford the increasing labor and food costs needed to give kids the best school nutrition experiences. 5. Equitably-Funded School Meals Create Better Jobs School nutrition programs are businesses. Like any other business, we have to offer competitive pay to attract and retain employees. We cannot afford to do this without proper funding. Historically, at least 40% of the revenue per meal is spent on labor. The increasing costs of labor means a higher percent of that revenue per meal. We don’t have a margin to take from and we can’t just raise prices. Our programs have survived by being largely dependent on near minimum wage employees with low-budget administrative costs. But those costs are increasing, and the complexities of managing our programs have skyrocketed. In other words, we need to offer competitive wages to hourly workers and management we desperately need to fill an ongoing labor shortage. We also need more (and more experienced) administrative labor to run programs that align with modern student needs. Equitable funding for school meals would go directly back into local

communities. That long-term, guaranteed funding would allow our programs to create higher quality jobs and support local food suppliers and retailers. 6. Lets Nutrition Staff Be Community Helpers (Not Debt Collectors) Imagine if teachers were told that to get paid, they needed to create a positive learning environment and teach an excellent curriculum, all while separating kids by income level, calling parents to talk about missing payments, and filling out paperwork for the government about kids’ family financial statuses. This is the conundrum school nutrition programs face. On the one hand, we are an essential part of the education system. On the other, we rely on for-profit sales to stay afloat. This tension places an enormous burden on our staff. Identifying Free, Reduced, and Paid- eligible students involves several manuals, thousands of pages of red tape, and expensive technology- based assistance. We must request documents to verify application authenticity and submit lengthy proof to state and federal auditors that we properly followed protocol. Once students are enrolled, we track them by income (again). Students are charged depending on their Free, Reduced, or Paid status, but those statuses can change, requiring voided or reclaimed transactions. School nutrition departments collect money in various ways (online, with cash, or by check), process money and deposits, and monitor issues. These tasks r equire administrative labor to write

and distribute letters, make phone calls, manage text systems, send emails, etc. But there’s more than just a financial cost to this admin work. Chasing families down for payment turns our front-line customer service personnel into debt collectors. How can we possibly expect these transactions to be positive? Why would these customers want to continue buying from us when we hound them for money (or proof of their financial insecurity)? The solution is to eliminate the pay- by-income rates and make school meals equitably accessible to all students. Then students can just be “students” — not Free, Reduced or Paid. 7. Equitably -Funded Meals Nutrition Programs Folks in the school nutrition world face an uncomfortable reality: the tools we used to rely on aren’t working anymore. Shrinking our budget is no longer sustainable — there are no more costs to cut. Manufacturers and distributors aren’t renewing bids because costs are expected to rise by 12-15%. Based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics National Compensation Survey , accommodation and foodservice industry compensation costs for the 12-month period ended June 2021 were up 6.2%, compared with 3.1% overall. Let’s apply 5% inflation to overhead. That triggers at least a 10% increase in the cost of lunch.We’d have to price KEEP READING are Critical for the Survival of School

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