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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

On Facts And Figures, Or, Over 187 Billion Served

A story has recently made itself known in this space that has become more than a one-day event, and as a result we will be doing some follow-ups.

The complexity of the story requires that we discuss the nuts and bolts of the larger environment within which the story is contained, and we will do that today.

The story: the substitution of an “alternate meal” to force payment from parents of school kids who owe the school for unpaid meals.

If all of this sounds familiar, it’s perhaps because you saw my earlier story describing the practice, or, for that matter, onecrankydem’s.

Since then, there have been new developments.

To begin, the parents who started all of this in the first place have contacted me with additional information. For a variety of reasons (including my desire to offer the Chula Vista Elementary School District a chance to respond) we won’t be discussing that today, however. I’m also trying to get more information by contacting experts in the child nutrition, education, and mental health communities (yes, actual reporting!), and through a search of the available literature.

The parents have also begun the process of creating a survey that we will use to develop a larger data collection program to really understand how the “alternate lunch” programs work nationwide; and I’ll be asking for your help with this effort soon. So stay tuned.

With that addressed, let’s move forward.

In order to properly build “the rest of the story” we need to create a foundation upon which our project may be built, and that will be the focus of today’s conversation.

“It is hereby declared to be the policy of Congress, as a measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s children and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities and other food, by assisting the States, through grants-in-aid and other means, in providing an adequate supply of foods and other facilities for the establishment, maintenance, and expansion of nonprofit school-lunch programs.”

--National School Lunch Act of 1946, Section 2 (emphasis added)

School lunches as national security?
What’s that all about?

It’s about the roughly 10% of World War II Selective Service registrants who were rejected for service because of the apparent effects of malnutrition or underfeeding; this according to Major General Lewis B. Hershey in his testimony to Congress in the run-up to the passage of the Act.

How much of an impact does the National School Lunch Program have? In the 2004-2005 school year almost 95% of schools (98,000 plus) participated in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which means 29.1 million kids had access to meals served under the auspices of the program every school day. The USDA reports that over 187 billion lunches have been served since 1946.

Cash expenditures (not counting commodity donations) for the NSLP were $7 billion in fiscal year 2005.

There’s also a School Breakfast Program, and about ¾ of the schools that participate in the NSLP also are involved in the Breakfast program.
More about this later.

From the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service’s “National School Lunch Program Fact Sheet”:

“How does the National School Lunch Program work?
Generally, public or nonprofit private schools of high school grade or under and public or nonprofit private residential child care institutions may participate in the school lunch program. School districts and independent schools that choose to take part in the lunch program get cash subsidies and donated commodities from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for each meal they serve. In return, they must serve lunches that meet Federal requirements, and they must offer free or reduced price lunches to eligible children. School food authorities can also be reimbursed for snacks served to children through age 18 in afterschool educational or enrichment programs.”

Cash subsidies, you say?
Tell us more...

I will, but as so often happens, I’ll tell the story backwards.
Because in order to understand cash subsidies, you need to know about the different types of lunches.

So here’s how it works. All kids are permitted to purchase meals under the two programs (breakfast and lunch), but...

...If you are a family of four, earning less than 130% of the poverty level ($21,580), your kids can have Free meals.

...If your family receives Food Stamps, TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), or participates in the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), your kids also receive Free meals.

...If your family of four earns less that 185% of the poverty level ($30,710) your kids can purchase the Reduced Price meal.

All students with family incomes above the 185% level can purchase the Paid meal.

For every Free lunch served the USDA pays the District a subsidy of $2.40.
The subsidy is $2.00 for each Reduced Price lunch; Paid lunches garner an “administrative subsidy” of $.23 each.

Of the 29.5 million students participating in the NSLP, 17.5 million were receiving Free or Reduced Price lunches.

The National PTA estimates that some of these kids get half their daily nutrition at school.

The Districts are not limited in the amount they can charge for Paid lunches (the average nationwide is $1.80 for the '06-'07 school year); but they are limited to charging no more than $.40 for the Reduced Price lunch. Districts, obviously, cannot charge for the Free lunch.

“Snacks” are also subsidized under the Act; and in 2004 it was $.61, $.30, and $.05 for each of the three categories.

Additionally, the Districts receive “USDA commodity foods” worth $.1675 per meal-and possibly even “bonus” commodities in some circumstances (see "Government Cheese" for more details).

Additional subsidies exist, but we’re not bureaucrats, so we’ll move on.

How many people know that the School Breakfast Program and the Black Panther Party are linked in history?

The Federal Breakfast Program was initiated as a pilot project in 1966, but was not established nationwide until 1975.

In the meantime the Black Panthers had been operating their own program (feeding as many as 10,000 every morning in Oakland alone); and it has been suggested that the Panther’s program shamed the Federal Government into making their Breakfast program permanent. (Are you a history buff? Here’s Huey Newton writing about the program in 1969.)

The Breakfast Program today has grown into about half the size of the Lunch Program (82,000 schools, 9.6 million students served, $3 billion in budget).

Reimbursement rates are $1.31, $1.01, and $.24 for the three categories of meals.

There is a second means of operating a school lunch program-the Provision 2 process. This is a method of funding that places all meals in one reimbursement category-and provides all meals for all students at no charge.

The reimbursement rate is designed to be lower than if the District collected cash for meals; but the administrative savings created by not handling cash or verifying family income eligibility every year can offset the rate difference-making this an excellent choice for many districts. (Districts must verify income eligibility once every four years.)

Nutrition is a component of the Programs we have not addressed. The Guidelines for the Programs can be seen here.

That’s a lot for one night, so I’ll leave with a final note:

The parents that are trying to get this practice stopped nationwide have established an email address for those of you who would like to touch base-and they’d love to hear from you.

Drop them a line at
They will appreciate it.

Next time: are these programs effective-and lots more.
Stay tuned.

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